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:

    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?

    • Born into groups
    • Compelled by authority to belong
    • Elect to join
    • Have a transformational experience

    Why join religious groups?

    • The most important reason people belong to a religious tradition is obviously not that the convert but, rather.....
    • They were born into the tradition

      Through much of history, one's religion was the religion of the ruler

      • When Constantine embraced Chistianity (313AD) the Roman Empire became Christian.
      • Prince Vladimir's conversion to Christianity (988 AD) has been identified with the "baptism of Russia.."
      • In the 15th century Spain and Portugal conquered Latin America with the sword and the cross.
      • Beginning in the 7th century, soldiers were the principle instrument for the spread of Islam from Senegal to Indonesia .
      • So it has been through much of history.

    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

    • Marriage
    • Social status
    • Association
    • Convenient location of a church
    • Friendship networks

    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:

    • Committed to persecuting members of the young Christian cult, Saul of Tarsus was struck down by a bolt of light on the road to Demascus and became the most celebrated convert in all of Christendom
    • Virtually everyone who lives in the Christian world knows the story of a Roman soldier named Saul of Tarsus.

      Conversion, understood as a radical life transforming experience has played a central role in Christianity from the beginning. Here are just a few examples:

      • Saint Francis of Assisi
      • John Wesley
      • Joseph Smith
      • Billy Graham

    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:

    • insincere
    • the result of immaturity
    • gulibility
    • manipulation
    • even foul play

    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.

    • Theory is a systematic set of interrelated propositions
    • Propositions are statements about the relationship between two or more concepts.

    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?

    • Conversion
    • Intensity
    • Demands
    • Ideological distance
    • Acceptance/Accommodation
    • Rejection/Conflict

     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

    • Joiners see themselves as seekers before joining
    • Seeking new ways to live; new interpretations of life

    Learn roles appropriate for participation

    • Role learning
    • Role playing
    • Making tentative commitments


    • Becoming a member is a gradual process
    • Novice may characterize experience as conversion, but is not likely to have a dramatic experience

    D. Commitment Model

    Three Types of Commtment

    1. Instrumental Commitment
    2. Affective Commitment
    3. Moral Commitment

    Kanter's Commitment Theory

    Type of Committment

    Processes 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: