Reconceptualising conversion: a phenomenological analysis of religious conversion, with particular reference to Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Religious conversion is often understood as a sudden, dramatic, emotionally intense, one-off experience which utterly revolutionises a convert’s life and religious worldview. This conception of conversion is driven by the influence of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), along with a strain of Protestantism which emerged in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America. Contemporary social scientific analyses of religious conversion reveal that conversions are in fact often long-term processes which play out over multiple years. Philosophy of religion has not often considered the question of religious conversion and, where it has done so, has adopted a Jamesian model as its object of study. Consequently, philosophical research into religious conversion often misidentifies its object of study, overemphasises the immediate experience at the expense of longer-term effects and processes, and is biased towards the experiences of modern Protestant Christians. This thesis offers a philosophical reconceptualisation of religious conversion by way of phenomenological analysis. It is informed by recent social scientific research, especially that of Henri Gooren, and adopts a more process-oriented, long-term view of conversion experiences which can unfold over a number of years. The thesis is philosophically influenced by the twentieth-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenological philosophy provides resources for thinking about conversion processes which occur over a longer time period and are affected by a convert’s immersion in a material, linguistic and social world. Embodiment, expression, and community are the three philosophical themes about which this thesis turns. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of embodiment, complemented by recent developments in cognitive science, enables an articulation of the embodied, belief-forming context within which conversion takes place. Without reducing conversion to physical or physiological processes, a philosophy of embodiment is able to present a view of human subjectivity as material and physical and explain how affective and embodied processes can influence, shape, and precipitate conversion. Added to this philosophy of embodiment is an analysis of expression. The thesis explores Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of language, focusing on the human’s immersion in a linguistic world and speech as accomplishing thought, and appends a Wittgensteinian praxeology and argument for the affectivity of language. It is argued that religious expression, rather than following conversion, is in fact capable of shaping belief, preceding and contributing to the conversion process, and works through the affective pathways of the body. The final philosophical theme of the thesis is the effect of community on conversion. Community is examined both as the context for ritual as well as that which offers a feeling of belonging. With reference to ritual studies and affect theory, respectively, community is understood to be a deeply affective experience which shapes how an individual believes and thus contributes to conversion experiences. This thesis contributes to the philosophy of conversion by refocusing research on the subjective experiences of converts and correcting the dominant stereotype of conversions as one-off dramatic events. It also builds a bridge between conversion studies and a wider philosophical anthropology, whereby the process and experience of conversion can affect how we understand human experience, belief, and freedom.