Religious Conversion in the Americas: Meanings, Measures, and Methods

By Steigenga, Timothy J. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Religious Conversion in the Americas: Meanings, Measures, and Methods


Steigenga, Timothy J., International Bulletin of Mission Research


Raeligious pluralism has fundamentally altered the social and religious landscape of Latin America and the Caribbean. From Mexico to Chile, millions of Latin Americans have abandoned their traditional Catholic upbringing to embrace new and different religious beliefs and practices. Evangelical Protestants represent approximately 15 percent of the population in the region today. Indigenous and Afro-diasporan religions have also experienced rapid growth. At the same time, significant changes within traditional religious categories have accelerated. Large numbers of Catholics have joined charismatic congregations, while sectors of classic Pentecostal and mainstream Protestant congregations have converted to "health and wealth" neo-Pentecostalism.

Religious conversion is the primary motor driving this larger process of religious change. While the macro-level factors that set the context for religious conversion (changes within the Catholic Church, increased Protestant missionary activity, and changes in state policies on religious freedom) have been studied considerably, far less attention has been paid to questions of exactly which people convert and under what circumstances, how social scientists understand and interpret conversion, and how conversion impacts individual and collective beliefs and actions. This essay seeks to provide some guidelines for the study of conversion gleaned from theoretical and empirical treatments of the subject in the context of Latin America.

Within the social science literature on conversion, there is a general consensus that conversion involves a process of radical personal change in beliefs, values, and, to some degree, change in personal identity and worldview. (1) However, questions about how to measure these changes, which level of analysis to utilize, and the role of personal agency versus external contextual factors remain matters of significant dispute and debate. (2) Bringing Latin American scholarship and empirical case studies into dialogue with this existing literature helps to establish a set of guidelines for studying conversion that can direct further scholarship and put to rest some of the widely held misconceptions about conversion in the Americas. In particular, I argue that (1) religious conversion must be understood as a process and continuum rather than a single discrete event, (2) conversion is a multiply-determined phenomenon that demands a complex theoretical model and a multifaceted research methodology, and (3) researchers would be well served by reevaluating the categories and concepts we utilize for measuring the political and social effects of religious conversion.

Conversion as Process and Continuum

The study of conversion in Latin America has given rise to multiple and diverse challenges to the "Pauline paradigm" of conversion: the sudden, dramatic, and all-encompassing view that characterized many early studies. A number of authors focusing on Brazil have argued that such traditional (and generally North American) conceptions of conversion do not apply to the Latin American religious field. (3) Patricia Birman uses the concept of "passages" between religious groups rather than sudden and dramatic conversion. (4) According to Birman, as neo-Pentecostal churches move closer to secular norms, their parishioners are able to relax the tensions between the sacred and the secular enough to make conversion a less radical and complete event. Furthermore, some authors argue that Latin American culture is sufficiently syncretic that transit between religious groups is a natural and nondramatic occurrence for many converts. (5) Taken together, these insights force us to take a closer look at what we mean by conversion in the Latin American context. If conversion is not always characterized by a dramatic change in religious beliefs and values, how can we define and utilize the concept in comparative study?

Henri Gooren brings us part of the way to resolving this dilemma by positing that conversion should be understood as a continuum rather than a single event. …

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