Conversion Stories

I was at a religious event yesterday on campus. Some student organization had invited three people to tell their conversion stories: one lifelong Christian, one former Muslim, and one former atheist.

All three stories followed a familiar pattern: “I used to be unhappy/abused/selfish, until I met some True Christians™ who seemed really happy. They invited me to read the Bible, pray, and live the life Jesus wanted, and I became happier and a much better person.” Nothing new there, but I was struck by the resemblance to an old statistical illusion:

Child psychologists have known for a while that praising children for their achievements works better than punishing them for their misdeeds. And yet, lots of parents think that punishment gets results. To see why, imagine a class of children taking a class with a series of weekly quizzes. In real life, a student’s grade depends both on how much effort he or she has put into studying, but also on random factors, like whether there were distracting noises outside, and things like that. So let’s ignore the effort part and make the grade completely random: the lazy teacher simply rolls percentile dice to determine each student’s score.

Imagine that one student got 90%, and his parents reward him for his this. Another student gets 10% and is punished by her parents for this. What should we expect to see on the next quiz?

The first student has a (roughly) one-in-ten chance of getting 90-100% on the second quiz, but nine times out of ten, his second grade will be 1-89%, lower than the first one. Likewise, nine times out of ten, the second student will get 11-100%, higher than on the first quiz. So what the first child’s parents see is that they rewarded their child, and his grades went down; the second child’s parents see that they punished their child, and her grades went up.

Likewise with conversions: if you’re at a low point in your life, there’s nowhere to go but up. And if you underwent a religious conversion during that period, you may attribute your subsequent improved fortune to the conversion. Post hoc, ergo proper hoc and all that.

Now, obviously conversions often come with changes in behavior and attitude, which are probably more significant. I’m not saying that this statistical illusion is a major factor in conversions, merely perhaps a contributing one.


An interesting thing happened in discussion afterward: the guy I was talking to said he had faith that Jesus existed. I asked him whether he thought faith was a good way of distinguishing what’s true from what isn’t. He asked me how I defined faith. I told him to use his own definition, since he was the one who believed on faith, and asked him again “is faith a reliable way of distinguishing what’s true from what isn’t?” He quoted Hebrews 11:1 and went off on a tangent, so I asked him again. I kept pressing him, and he kept dancing away from having to give a straight yes or no answer. I could practically hear the “clank!” as a shutter closed in his mind. “Don’t go there! There are dangerous thoughts there!”

Other than that, I have to give the organizers and presenters points for not bringing up Pascal’s wager. The general message was “follow Jesus and you’ll be happier”, rather than “repent or burn”.

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8 Responses to Conversion Stories

  1. Eamon Knight says:

    These testimonies are also self-selecting: you get to hear the success stories who stick around the movement. The ones who experienced no dramatic improvement dropped out within a year or so. I don’t know what the attrition rate is among born-agains, but I vaguely recall there is rather high neo-natal mortality (to stretch the metaphor).

    The general message was “follow Jesus and you’ll be happier”, rather than “repent or burn”.

    Yeah, that was pretty much the message when I was into that scene 35 years ago. There is no doubt something (which I’m too lazy/busy to speculate on just now) about the modern social milieu that makes positive pitches more effective than threats.

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  2. Fez says:

    Eamon Knight said:

    There is no doubt something (which I’m too lazy/busy to speculate on just now) about the modern social milieu that makes positive pitches more effective than threats.

    I don’t think there’s as much homogeneity as many purport there to be. The ‘positive message’, inviting religious groups have always been around and I’ll hazard a guess that they’re far more numerous than the fire-and-brimstone evangelicals who have seized the microphones and framed the dialog for the last, oh, decade or so. I’d like to think that the more moderate have finally decided to speak up and perhaps try to guide the public discourse back to a level of civility and respectful disagreement where diametrically opposed ideologies can co-exist without metaphorical (and literal) bloodshed.

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  3. arensb says:

    Eamon Knight:

    you get to hear the success stories who stick around the movement. The ones who experienced no dramatic improvement dropped out within a year or so.

    Good point. This is a bit like the “miracle” healings that people like Benny Hinn perform: people feel momentarily better, long enough to walk across the stage without walkers or crutches; or their pain goes away. But when researchers have followed up weeks or months later, it turns out that the miracle cure didn’t take.

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  4. Pocket Nerd says:

    That shutter slamming closed with an audible clank! is what Orwell called “crimestop” in 1984:

    Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.

    I see a lot of it when dealing with religious fundamentalists and political reactionaries.

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  5. Eamon Knight says:

    Geez, I read 1984 about 40 years ago, when I was barely old enough to understand half of what he was talking about. I saw the movie (the John Hurt/Suzanna Hamilton version) recently — it’s high time I hunted up a copy of the book.

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  6. arensb says:

    I reread it a few years ago, and while some parts are now dated (like the bit where Winston and Julia assume they can’t be overheard because they’re in a stand of young trees the thickness of a wrist, too small to hide a microphone), others are still current.

    I also like the movie more now than when I first saw it in 1984.

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  7. Eamon Knight says:

    @Fez:

    I don’t think there’s as much homogeneity as many purport there to be. The ‘positive message’, inviting religious groups have always been around and I’ll hazard a guess that they’re far more numerous than the fire-and-brimstone evangelicals who have seized the microphones and framed the dialog for the last, oh, decade or so. I’d like to think that the more moderate have finally decided to speak up and perhaps try to guide the public discourse back to a level of civility and respectful disagreement where diametrically opposed ideologies can co-exist without metaphorical (and literal) bloodshed.

    1) A religious studies major could probably get a doctoral dissertation (several in fact) out of analyzing the content of evangelical sermons from Luther to the present day, as a reflection of social conditions of the time. Is there a correlation between nasty vs. nice pitches and, say, economic conditions?

    2) It seems to me that the current public loudmouths are mostly on about the earthly political aspects of religious morality rather than about people’s Eternal Destiny. But the salvation vs. damnation thing is still present — just mostly inside the churches, rather than on the stump. Within the specifically religious mission, evangelical crusades in my lifetime have been more about “Jesus will give you abundant life in the here and now (and Heaven later)” than “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. But make no mistake (I was trained to do this sort of thing once upon a time): the stick is never far behind the carrot, the velvet glove always conceals a fist of iron. You just don’t dwell on that part.

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