Josh asks a fascinating question over on his blog. In the context he is talking about how people who convert to Eastern Christianity read church history, but it’s a question with far broader application:
My big question these days is, “What fuels belief?” I am quite convinced that it is neither reason nor fact, those these things can play a part. I think that for a formed belief to change, there must either be some sort of crisis event to shake it, or prolonged immersion in an environment that chips away at it.
My way of expressing much the same question is, “What causes people to change their beliefs? How are people persuaded to abandon one set of beliefs and adopt another?”
This question interests me partly because of my own personal history of frequent changes in belief (from Christian to atheist and back to Christian, from Reformed to Lutheran, from climate change non-sceptic to sceptic to non-sceptic, from evolution to creationism to ID and round and back again, from Conservative to Labour to Conservative to Labour, and so on).
None of these changes has arisen purely from “reason and fact” (though reason and fact have never been wholly absent, either). Rather, there seems to be some prior change of sentiment or allegiance that precedes a change in conviction. Equally there have been flirtations with other beliefs at various times (Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy) which have never reached that point of persuasion. To adopt Josh’s terminology, the typical pattern seems to be for a “crisis event” to complete (or make manifest) a process that has taken place during a more prolonged “period of immersion”. Process followed by crisis, in other words, rather than just one or the other.
So I’d be interested to know what people think. What are your own experiences of undergoing (or witnessing) changes in significant beliefs, and how do you consider these to have arisen?