Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Conversion Narratives

I've grown up all my life around conversion narratives, and have heard endless variations on them. Some of them are quite powerful and beautiful. But one advantage of having heard so many is the recognition of patterns, and among the things you learn when considering the patterns of conversion narratives are the signs that a conversion narrative is not actually describing a conversion, but is being used either to scam others or lie to oneself.

One of the common signs is, I think, of some importance for moral life. In a conversion narrative, you represent yourself as a new person, but there is new and then there is new. You find many evangelical conversion narratives in which the person after the conversion is represented as hardly recognizable as the person before. It's possible that this is just hyperbole in the telling, but often it is a sign of a sort of dishonesty in the narrative, whether that is motivated by a desire to convince others or by a desire to convince oneself. The fact of the matter is that, unless you are claiming that your conversion was a moral miracle along the lines of St Paul being struck down on the road to Damascus, you are mostly the same before and after your conversion. (For that matter, even in the case of St. Paul, you can definitely see that the post-conversion and pre-conversion St. Paul were the same person, with much the same driving temperament, focus, and difficult-ness. And this is indeed generally true of conversion into sainthood; it is part of what makes hagiography of convert-saints fascinating, how people of quite ordinary faults and failings can be the same and yet somehow come into new focus.)  The car that is you may have been tuned and set on the right road and its primary problems fixed, but it did not magically turn into a pegasus.

In the 'New Atheism' days, there were a lot of atheists, and especially former evangelicals, sharing their 'deconversion' stories (which, of course, are themselves just conversion narratives). Some of them were likely quite sincere and honest. But you could find the same patterns -- the atheist who would present themselves pre-turning-point as extremely gullible, or very hypocritical, or what have you. I assure you, if you were a gullible person before your shift of views, you are probably a gullible person still; if you were a hypocritical person before your shift of views, you are probably a hypocritical person, or tending to it, to this day. Perhaps you are improving. That's always a possibility. But improvement is not a miraculous transformation. If you are presenting it as such, that's a sign you are either scamming others or lying to yourself. And, of course, there's always the possibility that your prior hypocrisy or gullibility is in fact a fiction you've made up to convince yourself that you've done the right thing. That is also a common pattern. (Related, I think, to cases of converts picking fights with family or friends or associates, apparently to convince themselves that, after all, they had no choice. When we make life-changing choices, we sometimes do strange or extreme things to assure ourselves that it was somehow unavoidable.)

More recently, I've seen conversion narratives of former evangelicals or Catholics over homosexuality, or abortion, or what have you. Some of them are, as far as anyone can tell, honest and sincere, but there are again many cases that show the signs of trying hard to convince. If you treat your former views as being due to your bigotry, for instance, either you are lying about that, or, if not, you probably still have pretty much the same tendencies to bigotry that you did. Your mind did not suddenly reorganize into something totally different. If you characterize yourself as being dishonest with yourself beforehand, you almost certainly have much the same tendency to dishonesty with yourself now.

The cases could be multiplied indefinitely. I would, of course, not deny that there are in fact moral miracles or cases of trauma forcing massive changes in a short period of time. But if you are telling your conversion narrative, you are not generally talking about your catastrophic collapse into a complete mess due to trauma, and if you are claiming to be the special recipient of a moral miracle, you should be quite up front about your claim and recognize that the claim is easy but the life less so. But I don't think it's a matter relevant only to conversion narratives, which are just cases in which the signs can sometimes be very easy to see because it's made explicitly. There is a deeper problem, namely, that sometimes when we change, or want to change, or want to improve ourselves, we fall to the temptation of thinking we ourselves have changed, when in reality all we have changed is the story we are telling. Genuine conversions of all kinds, whether good or bad, right or wrong, reasonable or unreasonable, are quite common, of course; but so are attempts to present ourselves as changed for some benefit, and so are attempts simply to speak a change (or a moral reason for it) into existence.