Thoughts on the problem of religious conversion in history

The question of religious conversion has led to serious problems over the years.  In fact, I often feel that people don’t realize the problems, and damage, that religious conversion has caused, and the effects it has had on our lives.  The effects of religious conversion have been largely neglected and not realized.  As far as I know, I’m the only one who has looked at it closely.  Sadly, for something so important, it has become another ‘forgotten and neglected details’ in history.

Much of recent history and modern society has been influenced by religious conversion in one way or another.  Had religious conversion not of taken place the world we live in now would be very different.

I’ve also discussed some aspects of this problem in my article “Thoughts on my statement, “We need to start talking about theology again” – some aspects of the problems . . .” if you’re interested.


Religious conversion has caused a lot and varied damage on many different levels.  Some examples of these include:

  • Many people have died over it.
  • Wars have been created as a result of it.
  • Its caused many political disputes, power plays, and competitions that continue to this day.
  • Many people have had to take up beliefs they did not believe in.
  • It undermined and destroyed many existing religions, belief systems, and cultures.
  • It has caused tensions between people that have existed for centuries.
  • Its caused great suffering and despair for many people.
  • It has completely undermined the believability of religion and, in some cases, any belief at all.
  • Its made it so no one wants anything to do with religion or god.
  • Its made it so that people turn to other things to replace the religion that is missing, creating many ‘pseudo-religions’ (such as science).

A great deal of conflicts and problems, in western history, can be attributed to religious conversion.  This is because the damage has far reaching effects, often affecting things that, at first glance, have nothing to do with religious conversion.  In general, the damage of religious conversion can be seen as consisting of two forms:

  1. The damage to world conception.  In so doing, it hit humanity to the core, hitting the ‘soul’ of life.  We must remember that religious conversion affected religion, which entails a peoples whole conception of the world, such as the meaning of life, death, a persons worth, belief in how the world worked, etc.  These are major details in life . . . nothing to look at lightly.  These are things that enrich life, making life worth living, and give it meaning.  Because world conception has so much power in human life, anything that affects it has great impact on life and ends up having far reaching influence.  The religious conversion did just that.
  2. The damage to social relations.  Since religion is such a part of everyday life long ago, it was instrumental in everyday social relations.  In addition, it was a unifying element for many people.  As a result, the upsetting of this belief system upset society and how it worked.

Both of these hit humanity in the deepest ways possible.  As a result, we can see that religious conversion was more than trying to ‘convert’ people.  It became something that affected and dramatically changed and influenced people and society in many ways. 

Its often amazed me how these underminings and damages have been treated so nonchalantly, almost as if nothing happened.  But I often feel that this is because it was so serious and affected humanity so deeply.  Since it hit us to the core we could not react to it nor did we know how.  The natural reaction to this type of situation seems to be to turn from it all and go some other way.  In other words, “turn a blind eye to it”.  Its for this reason that I call this tendency ‘conversion blindness’.  Turning a blind eye to the effects of religious conversion, no one knew about it making it seem insignificant and minor, to the point that its questionable if it happened at all.  As a result, the damaging effects of religious conversion were not recognized or seen.   One effect of this was to make it run wild in our society, doing whatever it will.

In the end, religious conversion running wild ended up destroying the very thing it was seeking to spread – beliefIts effects created a world devoid of belief, god, and religion . . . basic elements in human society since the beginning of time.  As a result, it is instrumental in the development of an unhuman world and began the process of alienation and dehumanization that is the hallmark of the modern world. 


Religious conversion, theoretically, is based in ‘convincing’ you that their views are right.  Once convinced then you are ‘converted’.  In other words, religious conversion places great store in intellectual understanding and, in fact, is based in it.  In so doing, it made religion primarily an intellectual matter.  Of course, this assumes that people have great power of intelligent understanding and that people can ‘freely choose’ based on their understanding.  The fact, though, is that only a small segment of the population can be intellectually converted.  For most people intellectual understanding is not that effective.  This overestimation of the importance of intelligence and understanding I often speak of as “the great failure of religious conversion” . . . they made the mistake of thinking intellectual understanding was everything.  As a result, “conversion by understanding” was a failure overall, and had less impact than what it may seem.


Because of the failure of “conversion by understanding” religious conversion had to try to use other techniques such as:

  • The repetitive use of examples, such as miracles, other conversions, the behavior of the saints, etc.
  • Emphasizing things such as ‘feeling the spirit’, praying, and such to help them convert (that is, not using intellectual understanding).
  • Trying to blend things into their existing belief systems so it ‘makes sense’.
  • Repetitive exposure by having them go to church, be around religious people, etc.
  • The use of force.

Though some of these worked for some of the population, most failed for the greater population. They did not have long-standing effects.

Since the above attempts at converting tended to fail and do not last, it is clear that there were other mechanisms that caused the ‘greater conversion’ of the population.  The techniques used above were all techniques that they overtly tried to do, that they thought would convert people.  But they were not what really caused the ‘greater conversion’.  In other words, the actual conversion of the greater population was achieved by other phenomena than the techniques they thought would work to convert people.  In effect, the actual conversion seems to of been caused by natural conditions that were found in the situation which eventually led up to it, not by any overt technique by people.  Several important elements of this situation, and that seemed to cause this ‘greater conversion’, are:

  • “Conversion by the powers-that-be”.  This is when the powers-that-be enforces a conversion, or some changes, that lead to the greater part of the population becoming ‘converted’.  In some cases, such as in England, the people converted because the King converted.  In other places, they may of enacted Christian laws.  And in other places they may of began to Christianize things, building churches, enacting festivals, etc.  These may of had only a small impact on the current generations initially but their existence often had great impact on the following generations because of the “conversion by familiarity”, as described below.
  • “Conversion by familiarity”.  It seems, to me, that most “conversion” was not because people were convinced of it but because they were brought up in it.  That is to say, they were brought up in a society that was already demonstrating the new belief (it makes no difference the way it became that way).  It was only natural for the generations brought up in it to believe in things primarily because they were familiar with it.  This demonstrates what I call “conversion by familiarity”.  As it looks to me, this is the main reason for the most successful form of conversion that continue down to today.


In many cases of religious conversion people found themselves having to adopt beliefs that they often did not believe.  This means that the beliefs are not really rooted in any cultural manifestations or ways of life and did not reflect the people at all.  In many cases, the new beliefs were at odds with their beliefs or contradicted it. This condition caused a basic dilemma of belief, primarily because people have to take up beliefs that often had no relevance to them.

The “Dual Belief System”

But, because they “have to” believe it has often created a condition of a “dual belief system”.  This is where people actually develop two forms of beliefs which exist side-by-side. This “dual belief system” consists of:

  1. “What I’m supposed to believe.”  This is what society, the situation, or the system says I must believe.
  2. “What I really believe.”  This refers to the belief I feel deep down and based on ones culture, tradition, and way of life.

This “dual belief system” has created great conflict in people and society, and still does.  In many cases, its created a strong ‘social belief system’ and a ‘personal belief system’, making people live a ‘double life’, so to speak.  This has caused a number of effects depending on which way they lean.  If they lean toward the ‘personal belief system’ it has effects such as:

  • It tends to create a society that is not unified.  Since everyone has their ‘personal belief system’ people are not “on the same page”.
  • It creates a tendency of aloneness and being alienated from society.  The ‘personal belief system’ tends to alienate people from other people.

If they lean toward the ‘social belief system’ it has effects such as:

  • They will often never know what they truly believe and become alienated from themselves.  As a result, belief becomes ‘dry’ and ‘dead’ and ‘detached’.
  • They will blindly follow social beliefs and customs, often creating a human robot.

With this, we see that the “dual belief system” has great impact on the individual and society, depending on how it appears.  In many cases, the “dual belief” makes it so that people don’t know what to believe, themselves or society, creating an overall general belief dilemma, which often turned into a nihilism. 

The “Life/Belief Schism” – The “Attempted Religions”

The change in belief took people away from a belief rooted in a  culture and way of life, that sprouted from how they, and their ancestors, lived.  This caused a “life/belief schism”.  In other words, a person developed a belief system that did not match their lifestyle and culture, creating a deep inner sense of something ‘amiss’.  This, I feel, is reflected in all the doubts about Christianity over the years by “believing Christians”, and in how it has split up into a million different forms.  It demonstrates the basic problem of the schism:  intellectually it makes sense but, deep down, it seems that something is missing.  Because this is a result of religious conversion I often describe this sense of something missing as  the “conversion hole”. 

The ‘conversion hole’ has created a lot of problems in religion and belief in general.  It has turned religion and belief into nothing but a bunch of beliefs that ‘seem to work’ but end up ‘not working’ or ‘don’t answer’ anything.  As a result of this, there is an attempt to try to fill the “conversion hole” up with either different ‘twists’ on old beliefs or in new beliefs.  This attempt has created a slew of modern “attempted religions”.   These are basically attempts at ‘filling the hole’.  In other words, they are like a ‘patchwork’ or ‘repair work’ really.  Though they often seem to solve the ‘problem’ in actuality they reveal that religion and belief is, in fact, in a crisis.  They are like ‘temporary fixes’.  In some ways, they are often a ‘last ditch effort’  at solving the dilemma.  Typically, these “attempted religions” fail in the end.

Examples of “attempted religions” include:

  • The “don’t know religions”.  This is a belief system based on how we simply “don’t know” who god is, what is right, etc.  Typically, these are just attitudes people take to explain things off.
  • The “pretend religions”.  These are religions that ‘pretend’ to answer the missing element, often by creating whole new answers and explanations, such as that god is an alien.
  • The “twisted religions”.  These are two or more religions that are intermixed and mixed together.  They usually ‘pick and choose’ qualities of different religions to ‘fill in all the holes’.
  • The “want-to-be religions”.  These are new belief systems that ‘want-to-be’ a formal religion and try to act like it.  Often, they become a cult.
  • The “disguised religions”.  These are religions that basically serve the purpose of religion but are disguised to not look that way.  A good example of this is science or atheism.

Many of these “attempted religions” are attitudes and beliefs people take on their own.  That is to say, it is not necessarily an ‘organized religion’, though they can be.  They can also reveal a pattern of belief in a specific generation or even a specific group of people.  Typically, they reflect a people-within-a-culture.  They do not reflect the culture overall and are seldom reflective of the greater mass of people.


The problems created by religious conversion shows some interesting aspects of the nature of belief.

  • One thing it shows is that belief stems from a way of life.  In other words, its a reflection of the conditions one lives in.  If a belief system is not rooted in a lifestyle it tends to be weak and fail.
  • It also shows that belief stems from the tradition and culture one lives in.  In many ways, belief “flowers” from them.
  • It also shows that belief is a very social phenomenon.  It stems from associating with other people.
  • It shows that belief is based on imitation of other people.  This is why “conversion by familiarity” worked the best conversions . . . they imitated.
  • It also shows that belief is not rooted in intellectual understanding.  In fact, it shows how little understanding has to do with belief.   For much of the population, a belief is something you follow, not understand.

The original belief of humanity, before the religious conversions, were beliefs that appeared naturally, as a result of the conditions one lives in.  They were reflective of a ‘reality’ which a person could see, in the world around them, in ones lifestyles, traditions, customs, and in the people around them.  So, we see from the beginning that belief stemmed from many other qualities.  As I said above, religious conversion believed that understanding was supposed to be the reason for belief and a change in understanding would change belief.  In reality, belief is rooted in many other things . . . understanding really isn’t one of them.

I often feel that belief is something that ‘sprouts’ from:

  1. A way of life and the condition of ones lifestyle.
  2. A people traditions and culture.
  3. On imitation of other people.

The conversion that have “stuck” are those that somehow adopted one or more of these . . . not by using understanding.


In western history, religious conversion has had great impact over the centuries.  Because it has lasted so long (almost 2 thousand years!) its effects are seen in just about everything:  politics, philosophy, law, social relations, everyday life, etc.  The effects are primarily a result of two things:

  1. The religious conversion itself.
  2. The reaction of religious conversion.

Some of the ongoing effects caused by religious conversion itself include:

  • An over-emphasis on knowledge, understanding, and intellectualism.
  • A lifestyle based in abstract thought (and not on real-world situation).
  • An emphasis on individualism and what the individual believes or does.
  • A self-righteousness of ones belief.  This is seen not only in religion but in other areas such as politics and science.

Some ongoing effects caused by the reaction to religious conversion include:

  • A continual sense of uncertainty about belief.
  • A tendency to believe in nothing:  nihilism.
  • An apprehension of any religious belief.
  • Continual disputes about religion and god.
  • An alienated and dehumanized lifestyle, detached from ones inner feelings.
  • A distrust toward authority.

Many of these attitudes continue in everyday life today and have had great impact on the modern way of life.


In the modern world, the “converting attitude” has gone beyond religion.  Despite all the problems its created, its become an accepted attitude . . . as long as its not associated with religion.  This is because the religious conversion attitude has been so prevalent in our society.  Basically, in the “new” modern conversions they are attempting the conversion of other people, but in other ways and for other reasons.  A country that has had led this recently is the U.S.  Before this, the British were the leaders and spear-headed it in the world.  Don’t be fooled, the “new” modern conversions are just as destructive, just as violent, just as undermining, and are just as disruptive as religious conversion.  In many ways, they are worse.  Some of the “new” modern conversions include:

  • World empire conversion.  This is the idea that we must ‘convert’ the world to a world empire or a “united world”.  The British were big in its conception and the U.S. has carried it on, though with other explanations.
  • Political conversion.  In the last century, especially, we’ve seen millions of people converted to a specific political ideology.  In many cases, this was done with force.  Two good examples are Soviet communism and American democracy.  Since the Soviet Union has fallen the U.S. seems to be the only country now trying to ‘convert’ the world politically.
  • Economic conversion.  In the last century this went hand-in-hand with political conversion.  In the same way, the U.S. is still trying to ‘convert’ the world to its economic system.
  • Modernization conversion.  Recently, there have been many attempts at ‘modernizing’ the world.  This has been implemented by many ways, by politics, by business, by markets, etc.  In general, what is called ‘modernization’ is really nothing but another form of conversion.  Its using the same techniques and has the same results.  It also historically descends from the same mentality.

And so, despite the apparent lack of religion, the mentality of conversion continues on today.  As a result, the continuing of the problems created by conversion are still ongoing and are still felt today.  What was started by religious conversion isn’t done yet . . .

(For a related subjected see my “Was 9-11 overreacted and overplayed?“).


Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Christianity, Christian conversion, Post-Christianity, and Christian influence, Dehumanization and alienation, Historical stuff, Modern life and society, Religion and religious stuff, Society and sociology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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