CONVERSION & A Sociological Definition Compiled by ARDA: The Association of Religious Data Archives #PennStateUniv

bpc_icon_concept.jpg Conversion


“Conversion refers to shifts across religious traditions” (Stark and Finke 2000:114). This would include changing from Judaism to Christianity or Hinduism to Islam. Religious reaffiliation, changing from one style of a specific religion to another, is commonly confused with conversion. An example of reaffiliation would be changing from Southern Baptist to Methodist within Christianity or from Sunni to Shiite within Islam.

Studies focusing on the growth of cults did the most to shed light on the nature of conversion and the way individuals change their religious beliefs. The popular belief before the studies of Lofland and Stark (1965) and Barker (1984) was that individuals joining religious cults were brainwashed by leaders. These studies disproved this conception of conversion showing that initiates into new religious groups converted due to changes in their social networks. Those who converted did so because they came to a point where they knew more people in the cult or religious group than individuals not a part of the group. It was only until after conversion took place that the actual beliefs of the group were cited as reasons for the conversion.

Some common ways of measuring the concept of conversion is to ask individuals if they have ever experienced what they would describe as a conversion experience. Another avenue for exploring conversion is to compare a respondent’s parent’s religious affiliation with the respondent’s current religious affiliation or stated religious identity. This method assumes that as a child the respondent shared her parent’s religious views. A third possible measure of conversion is religious intermarriage. Over time researchers might find that a spouse converts, not just reaffiliates, to their spouse’s religion.


a.) Barker, Eileen. 1984. The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers
b.) Lofland, John, and Rodney Stark. 1965. “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective.” American Sociological Review 30: 862-875.
c.) Stark, R. and R. Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.
d.) Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. “Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects,” American Journal of Sociology 85: 1376-1395.

Related Measures
The following are possible measures of Conversion that can be created using data from

arrow.jpg Conversion Experience
Respondent identifies with undergoing a religious conversion experience of some kind.

Q13A: Variable 28 from Baylor Religion Survey, 2005 midline_dotted.jpg

arrow.jpg Parent’s Religious Affiliation
Asks respondents what religious tradition their parent’s ascribe to. Allows researchers to investigate why individuals maintain or change from the religious tradition they were exposed to when younger.

Q31A: Variable 121 from Baylor Religion Survey, 2005 Q31B: Variable 122 from Baylor Religion Survey, 2005 MARELIG: Variable 403 from General Social Survey, 1988 PARELIG: Variable 408 from General Social Survey, 1988 MOMS RELIG: Variable 637 from General Social Survey, 1998 POPS RELIG: Variable 639 from General Social Survey, 1998 PRELIGN: Variable 797 from National Study of Youth and Religion, Wave 1 (2003)