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Of Conversions and the Converted

By Carl S ~

Constantine's conversion, by Rubens.
Constantine's conversion, by Rubens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Once in a while, I stop at the library to take out a DVD film. When reading the plots on the jackets, I keep noticing how many of them involve the words, "and their lives were changed forever." There has to be a market for these movies; guaranteed money to be made, because there are so many of them. It isn’t just movies. Books with that theme are popular, too. In fact, the forever-life-changing-experiences are nourishment for religious proselytizing. The most famous is of course that of Saul, who did a 180 degree from persecutor to apostle after being knocked off his horse onto his ass. The Emperor Constantine was not converted to Christianity until he was dying. Did he have a near-death experience to cause his conversion? The scientific evidence for NDEs, as purely natural phenomena, is so well documented by now that the mere mention of them should be cause for yawning. From time immemorial, a perennial stream of conversions flows. In fiction, we have Scrooge's turn-around conversion in Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" (Of Scrooge, a famous psychiatrist said, "He'll revert back within two weeks." Hmm... how many religious converts revert back?) Many religions report "miracles" causing people to accept their religions as true.

Should any thinking person assume religious conversions are important to anyone other than the experiencers when the results are claimed to support so many different, even contradictory, beliefs? If only one single faith or one single god had converts, saints, and martyrs, then we might critically examine it to find out why. Because every faith does, we have good reason to suspect something else is going on. The conversions and the converted need to be investigated and critiqued.

Let me give you some examples of conversions: A former neighbor, Marty, a WWII bomber pilot who died last year, told my wife and me about how his conversion came about. He was forced to parachute into enemy territory at Christmas time. He came upon a church, and within it, carols were being sung. He decided then, after being saved from tragedy, to devote the remainder of his life to serving God. Julia Sweeney concluded, after being a Christian, "There is no God!" Then there's a man who wrote in to our local paper recounting his conversion after he had reached the point of preparing to commit suicide, but changed his mind as he thought about his children. As he relates this, somehow God figured into his decisions for the rest of his life.

In a TV interview, Ted Turner related the months he spent watching his brother die in agonies from cancer, and decided there is no God. Francis Collins, after coming upon a waterfall frozen into three parts, was thereby convinced to accept Christianity as true. A minister in Bill Maher's documentary, "Religulous," avers (unconvincingly) he has "prayed away" his homosexual nature and has become heterosexual. One man, (who I still think of as an agnostic), told me about his two near-death experiences, which convinced him he has a soul which survives death.

Conversions are all about vulnerability and the overwhelming impact of emotions, ergo they are personal and can easily be explained as reactions to extremely stressful experiences, good or bad, from naturally occurring, or artificially induced, overloading of the senses. (Discover magazine, May 2016: For a memory test, a mouse was given a course to learn. While traveling its route, at one point its pleasure center was zapped. When the route was re-introduced, the mouse headed immediately to the place associated in its brain with a reward. There was no reward. The association was implanted there. Could a human "spiritual" association that concurs with overwhelming or awesome experiences have been previously implanted there through indoctrination?)

In Mao's China, some candidates for the Party were subjected to the unrelenting pressure of brainwashing, achieved mostly through sleep deprivation. Those that survived became as wholly dedicated to Mao's Communism as any convinced evangelical missionaries are to their religions. In his book "1984," George Orwell's protagonist emerges at the end of a horrifying mind-torture to proclaim, "Long live Big Brother." It's a frightening thought, but, now aware of these things, we may wonder: How many of those tortured in the Inquisition were converted to its doctrines?

Just try to get life-altered experiencers to consider that what they've experienced as "more real than real” has rational explanations. Lots of luck. For them, their feelings didn't deceive them, and the "spiritual” connection is uncontestable. But what about those times when humans have other conversions, due to available atheistic information? And doesn't it make sense that emotional overload that can "change a life forever," may have opposite outcomes? It couldn't have taken very long, for those leaders who came after the founders of religions died, to realize just how powerful the conversions to atheism and non-belief can be, and to recognize those persuasions as the enemies of their faiths. Doubting the “certainty" of attributing "spirituality" to mere sense-overload is threatening to any faith. As a result, those who dared to openly doubt were banished, silenced, and exterminated. Doubt is the other side of faith, and the two exist in a dissonant mental- emotional, relationship. (Now that's a volatile state waiting to explode.)

When things are found to be untrue, no re-believing is possibleFor those of us who've really had our lives forever changed by leaving belief, just try to re-believe in something you’ve found to be false, like Santa and God. Ours are not conversions due to "miracles" or "saving” attributed to a supernatural intervention in our personal lives, or to events that pushed us over the edge of reason. They all come from seriously and constantly pursuing information to find out what's true. When things are found to be untrue, no re-believing is possible, since nothing will change the evidence, nor can you see the world as flat from the International Space Station.

I have been told, more than once, to not "bother" believers with information that contradicts their beliefs. I have been told, "Their minds are made up and you're not going to change them." To me, this is a negative, hopeless attitude to human beings. People do change their minds, sometimes many times in a day. If they didn't, we'd still have socially acceptable bigotry, the traditional intense hatred for those who think and live differently from us, etc., etc. To the abolitionists, fighting slavery must have seemed a hopeless cause, as the fight for sexual equality for females was also regarded. If people didn't change their minds, we wouldn’t have any progress at all. Yet, we must be realists; there are those who are actually hopeless about changing the way they see things, and ever will be. This is no reason to quit. I keep hoping most believers will eventually change their minds about important issues for humanity, so I "bother" them. There are conversions and then there are conversions.

To the faithful of ExC: Over the years, Wizened Sage and I have had many letters to the editor published in our local weekly. Whenever any of those letters criticizes Christian beliefs, I've noticed one thing all the protesting responders have in common: none of them are members of the clergy. (That also appears true for the trolls who infest this site.) If they were clergy, you can be sure they'd tell everyone. I suspect the reason is the clergy don't want to commit themselves, lest they be revealed and contradicted by other clergy members telling them they’re wrong. No, clergy leave it up to their indoctrinated, the least "qualified," to put themselves on the line. Maybe, before we get too involved in answering trolls, we should recommend they have their pastors respond instead.