“I left atheism”: The language of conversion

Welcome to my blog on religious language! For my first post, I’m going to talk briefly about an experience that nearly every human being goes through: conversion.

My post was prompted by a tweet yesterday on the language of conversion, by someone who describes themselves as “A former Christian looking at the claims of current Christians #atheist.” The tweet (below) resulted in some interesting discussion around what conversion is, why someone might tend to use conversion-like language (“I left atheism”) in some instances of life change but not others.

My approach to religious language is a functional one and based on an open view of religion. By that, I mean it involves first considering what does religion and religious language do for us? I then identify what kinds of language we tend to use to do religion. This approach has evolved over several years, out of a focus on language in a wide variety of contexts. In my forthcoming book on religious language, I give examples of contexts where religious language tends to bubble up.

One such context is significant life transition. These are times when someone experiences a significant life change (birth, death, marriage, etc). And when this transition is powerfully linked to a person’s sense of identity, we tend to refer to this as a conversion. People convert to all sorts of things. And using an open view of religion, we can refer to all of these significant identity changes as religious conversion.

According to Patricia Malesh, a conversion story speaks ‘to a moment or event, or series of moments or events, that transform those who experience them’ (Malesh, 2009: 133). It’s no surprise, then, that the language of a conversion narrative often involves using a metaphor of journey and other related metaphors (a breakthrough, a light at the end of a tunnel, an escape route, a time of significant growth).

Often, the person telling their conversion story will emphasize the difference between the old way of life and the new. Conversion narratives frequently use largely negative language to depict the old way of life and positive language to speak about the new. This is because a conversion is more than a shift in personal identity. It is a shift to a certain community identity. Using positive language to reflect that shift does many things, including signal to the community that a person is now an enthusiastic insider.

It’s important to say that some events are linked to identity-formation more than others. And what one person experiences as conversion, another person may not. Returning to Twitter, one person made the important point that if being childless was a significant part of one’s identity (whether negatively or positively), and they then had a child, they would be likely to talk about that change using conversion-type language.

And in fact, many people do talk about having children as being like a religious conversion. We certainly might choose to talk like this for lots of different reasons. But thinking of motherhood as a conversion moment is particularly common in hyper-patriarchal communities where having children is seen as a significant identity marker for women.

I tweeted about this a while back, noting a phrase which a friend had seen several times on social media: “I don’t remember my life before I became a mother.” I explained that where other people might not talk about becoming a parent like this, choosing the language of conversion points to the significance of motherhood in the religion of patriarchy.

And I immediately got pushback on my tweet, from someone who was uncomfortable with me making explicit the sexist nature of this particular conversion narrative. I was making the point that talking about motherhood this way indicates that within a patriarchal ideology, there is something missing in a woman’s life before she has a child. The idea is that a woman is not a full fledged member of that community until she has a child.

This pushback I got reveals an important point here:
The more important a particular identity feature is within a community, the more threatening it is to challenge a conversion narrative involving that identity feature. In fact, such a challenge threatens the stability of the whole community.

Returning to the first tweet that prompted all of this, we can see how conversion narratives away from atheism felt threatening to this particular atheist. Atheism was clearly important to the tweeter’s identity, and so conversion narratives depicting a movement away from atheism may have felt like a personal insult, something “fishy,” in their words.

In sum, conversion narratives seem to be hugely important in structuring most (if not all) communities and in articulating the identities of its members. Different communities develop particular ways of talking about entrance to the community over time, though there are common patterns across most conversion narratives. As I’ve studied the language of conversion, I’ve come to appreciate discovering the narratives of people who depart from these norms and talk about their conversion in more complex ways. This is rare, in my experience.


2 thoughts on ““I left atheism”: The language of conversion

  1. This is *so* good – has me thinking about the children’s Bible resources I research. I think it would be fair to say that in the case of one well-known resource at least, parenthood within marriage is structured as a conversion event: the way people access adult, insider status and identity. That wasn’t uncommon in children’s literature generally when I was a child, but in other genres authors seem to be queering the script and proposing other bases for identity. Not so children’s faith formation, alas.

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    1. I hope we can talk more about this sometime and look at some examples. Every time I speak with you about your work, I’m even more convinced of its importance!

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