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Phil Harrold

Conversion and the Ecology of Faith

How does it happen?

A generation ago, scholars of comparative religion thrived on notions of congruency and conformity. Religion in all its variety possessed a universal experiential core, a primordium, that, once identified, made homo religiosis more intelligible. Today, scholars of the history of religions are animated by the power of plurality. Many of them reject the notion that religions are grounded in a common essence, nor do they find it very interesting or illuminating to generalize across religious boundaries. When similarities are observed, they are relatively isolated in nature. Perhaps some component—a particular belief or practice—may have analogies elsewhere, but it can only be properly understood in terms of the intrinsic pattern of interrelatedness from which it derives.

This radically pluralist view—increasingly prominent in the academy, though hardly evident in popular discourse—acknowledges the jarring reality of religious differences across the globe and underscores a scholarly preference for description over explanation. A hodgepodge of essays gathered under the title Religious Conversion: Contemporary Practices and Controversies, edited by Christopher Lamb and M. Darrol Bryant, serves as a revealing case in point. Contributors to the volume treat the subject of conversion rather delicately, aware that it is not only a complex concept—certainly impossible to define in any universal sense—but also a particularly "troubling issue" for champions of religious pluralism. While a vast smorgasbord of spiritualities in the West encourages individualized seeking, blending, and movement from one flavor to another, boundary-conscious religious groups, especially in less mobile societies, view conversion with a great deal more anxiety, often with an eye to wider ethnic, economic, or political implications. Conversion may signal a change of religious identity, but it will manifest itself in strikingly different ways depending on the boundaries that ...

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