April 28, 2016

Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.


Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.


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