Thursday, June 03, 2010

Reasoned Action and Conversion

My dissertation has been focused on understanding how spirituality affects how we decide to engage in moral and immoral behaviors. The model I am using for this relationship is the Theory of Reasoned Action. Reasoned Action states that behavioral intentions are the result of two main influences: personal beliefs and social norms. Personal beliefs are related to what we believe about the behavior: is it enjoyable, is it instrumental for something else, and is it moral? Social norms include what we think other people want us to do and what other people actually do.

I have been wondering how Reasoned Action could be applied to religious conversion. When a person thinks about changing their religious convictions (or lack thereof), what influences are important for them? Here are some possibilities, based on this theory:

Attitudes: people convert because they think it will be enjoyable, pleasant, and maybe even fun to be a different religion.

Instrumental Beliefs: converting will help them accomplish some goal in their life, such as quitting alcohol or raising good religious children.

Moral Values: conversion is important because it is the "right" thing to do, because it is God's will and because it is true

Descriptive social norms: converting is attractive because a lot of their friends are that religion or have just converted, their example is influential

Injunctive social norms: the person believes that their friends and other influential people in their lives want them to convert (regardless of their own faith)

Perceived control (an aspect of Planned Behavior, not Reasoned Action): the person believes that it is possible for them to convert, that they could live a new life.

As you can imagine, all of these dimensions will likely be important influences on why a person converts. Two questions emerge: which of these are most important to the person who converts? And which of these reasons are acceptable to the religion as a reason to convert.

For the first question, this could suggest possibilities for ways to help people convert. If it is Attitudes that is foremost, then how do make the religion appear more enjoyable? If it is Injunctive Social Norms, then obviously sharing faith will be an important facet for helping people convert. But this brings us to the second question, what are the preferable reasons for conversion?

I think it is likely that religious clergy would want people to convert out of their moral values, a belief that it is true and good. But what if a person wants to convert so that they can meet dateable men or women? Obviously, some religious traditions would care more about intentions than others. If we "sell" a religion based upon Attitudes, then do people actually internalize their faith? If we pressure people to convert by sharing our faith with them regularly, does this create the type of faith that we hope for?

These questions are complex. Maybe I will be able to read up on any previous research in this area... or maybe even do some of my own research. Any thoughts or comments?