An Evolutionary Theory of Spiritual Conversion and Commitment: The Case of Divine Light Mission *

JAMES V. DOWNTON, JR. Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado at Boulder.
*An earlier draft of this paper was delivered at the International Society of Political Psychology Meetings, Washington, D. C., 1979.
© Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1980, 19 (4): 381-396

Contrary to the widespread popular belief that conversion is a radical change of personality, this article offers the alternative view of conversion and commitment as being evolutionary in their development. Based on intensive interviews with the followers of Guru Maharaj Ji, the guru of



Divine Light Mission, it traces the stages and steps followers took in becoming devotees. Examined sequentially, these stages and steps are viewed as a theoretical structure for the comparative analysis of other religious movements and the stages are briefly compared to the theory of conversion offered by Lofland and Stark.

Thoughts of conversion bring to mind sweeping changes of character, so profound in their impact that the idea of "rebirth" seems an apt description of its transformative power. When I began a study of the followers of Guru Maharaj Ji in 1972, I was interested in understanding how conversion and commitment were unique features of a broader spiritual evolution - a life of commitment to personal change and spiritual enlightenment. I was also curious to discover what modifications in the personal and social lives of followers would occur as a consequence of their conversions and their involvement in Divine Light Mission over time.

The study was based on intensive interviews with eighteen followers (or "premies" as they are called) plus follow-up interviews over five years' time. A lengthy questionnaire was also administered to premies in two other regions of the country, Hare Krishna followers in Denver, and a group of nonfollower students at the University of Colorado. An extensive treatment of the interview and questionnaire data can be found in my book on the movement - Sacred Journeys: The Conversion of Young Americans to Divine Light Mission (1979). Here, I want to lay out more completely than I did in the book the sequence of stages and specific steps premies took in the process of their spiritual evolution in order to clarify the theoretical structure of this incremental type of change.

What I discovered from a detailed examination of the life histories of premies is that spiritual conversion and commitment are very gradual in their development. While conversion does appear to be a sudden change of awareness which can transform a person's identity and perception of reality, radical changes of personality are rare. Speaking of their conversions in 1972, premies tended to dramatize them, as new converts are prone to do, by emphasizing the profound nature of the changes they had experienced. One premie, for instance, characterized his conversion as the death of his "old self," so that, looking into his past, he felt as if he were examining someone else's life. Yet, after five years in the Mission, premies spoke of their conversions as having been evolutionary, not revolutionary, in their development.


Guru Maharaj Ji came to the United States in 1971 when he was 13 years old to give "Knowledge" to those who could show that they were sincerely interested. People were invited to "Knowledge" sessions, where Mahatmas were empowered to teach them four techniques of meditation. Each technique was intended to give the initiate a unique experience of the "Knowledge," which is a term used in the Mission to refer to the life force (or God). Eventually, over 50,000 predominantly white, middle-class youth received the Knowledge.

Premies believe that Guru Maharaj Ji (like Christ, Buddha, and other great saints) is a living manifestation of the spirit and that he has come to bring peace to the world.


They believe that the ego is the chief obstacle to peace and that surrender to Guru Maharaj Ji and to their inner spirit (God) is a necessary and vital step in the evolution of their consciousness and the salvation of mankind.

Meditation, satsang (which is discourse on the Knowledge), and service are salient spiritual practices in the Mission. These practices, as well as devotion to the guru, are thought to bring the premie into closer contact with the spirit. Thus, premies believe that the most promising way to make a fundamental change in themselves and to break out of the cycle of war, hatred, and violence in the world is to cultivate a deeper relationship to God through spiritual practice and surrender.


By carefully tracing both general stages and specific steps in the developing spiritual commitments of premies as a "valued-added" process (Smelser, 1963), we understand why personal change proceeds by small increments rather than leaps and bounds, and how these young people reached the point of surrender to Guru Maharaj Ji. Their involvement in the Mission certainly could not have been predicted during the early period of their growing disillusionment with American society, for, even as hippies in the counterculture, other options were available to them. What we see is a funneling effect in the development of spiritual commitments similar to that described by Gerlacht and Hine (1969), Hine (1970), and Lofland and Stark (1965), where options become progressively narrower the further along in the process the person moves. As Becker has said of commitment in general: "Each step tends to limit the alternatives available at the next step until the individual finds himself at a decision point with only one 'alternative' to choose from" (1961: 245).

The following stages and steps chart the development of the spiritual commitments of those premies who reported a dramatic personal change (conversion) as a consequence of their experience in the Knowledge session. This focus is taken in order to shed light on the dynamics of the conversion experience. (For an account of the cases where no "rebirth" experience was reported, see Sacred Journeys [1979]). The description of each stage is couched in fairly general terms so as to suggest its applicability to similar kinds of movements, while steps are specific to the premie experience and illustrative of the concrete elements which make up each stage.

Stage I: General Dissillusionment with Conventional Values, Social Organization, and Solutions to Problems

This is a period of increasing disillusionment with the prevailing ideology, organization, and leadership of society, coupled with a growing fascination for unconventional life-styles and solutions. Disenchantment with conventional society is rooted in the individual's negative experience with institutions, opportunities, and reward structures. In this sense, it might be viewed as little different from the process of defection from the church, which Mauss (1969) described as stemming from ideological, social, and emotional reactions to church dogma, organization, and practices.


Step 1: Discontent. Briefly, premie discontent stemmed, in large measure, from
(1) their disenchantment with materialistic and competitive values,
(2) their sense of alienation from others and the society at large,
(3) their feelings of personal inadequacy, partly spawned by excessively demanding and unaccepting parents, and
(4) their sense of aimlessness and meaninglessness as a result of their participation in the counterculture.
These sources of discontent were not too different from those described by Nicholi (1974) in his study of seventeen college student converts to Christianity, among whom he found a widespread sense of social alienation, restlessness, and confusion about the meaning and direction of their lives.

Stage II: Deepening or Developing Faith in a Spiritual Solution to Problems

By itself, discontent is a poor predictor of spiritual conversion and commitment. For even people who oppose our society's competitive values and who experience feelings of alienation, aimlessness, and meaninglessness may not be available for a spiritual solution. That is, they may not be socially or psychologically free to take a spiritual direction. The following steps made premies freer to embrace a spiritual solution.

Step 2: Absence or deterioration of commitment to conventional religion and college. Premies had become disillusioned with the mainstream churches and dropped out in adolescence, freeing them to embark on a new spiritual direction. Similarly, dropping out of college as they did made them more available for involvement in the counterculture, which removed them from the influence of conventional career training and clothed them in a new ideology and life-style. More importantly, it introduced them to psychedelic drugs, which were eventually to create religious beliefs compatible with eastern spirituality.

Step 3: Spiritual awakening through psychedelic drugs. Psychedelic experiences changed the spiritual frames of reference for many of these young people. They testify to the fact that psychedelics revealed a powerful energy animating life which they came to see as spiritual in nature. This experience challenged their Judeo-Christian conception of God as a human form and made them more sympathetic to the eastern view of God as energy. Later, they were attracted to eastern spiritual beliefs because such beliefs were generally compatible with their own. Thus, there was a continuity of beliefs, where personal ideologies held prior to joining were in general harmony with the movement's belief system. Other research has also found few drastic changes of belief among converts (Balch & Taylor, 1977; Lynch, 1977).

Step 4: Experimentation with eastern spiritual practices. Premies who were spiritually awakened through their use of drugs soon began experimenting with meditation, chanting, and yoga as spiritual practices. Their positive experiences with those techniques deepened their disenchantment with drugs and counterculture life. Also, at this time, a new set of social norms was developing within the counterculture community, discouraging the use of drugs and putting a higher value on natural ways of "getting high," such as meditation. Already disillusioned with or "burnt out" on drugs, they welcomed the emergence of a new spiritual community within the counterculture.


Step 5: Development of social ties with those in the newly emerging spiritual community. Where initially there had been social pay-offs for taking drugs, becoming active in the growing spiritual community eventually became, as one premie put it, "the hip thing to do." With their pattern of conformity changing in a spiritual direction, many were soon reading spiritual books and associating with spiritually inclined people. This turn toward spirituality was also encouraged by other factors: few countervailing group pressures discouraging their involvement in the new spiritual community; geographic distance from previous group pressures (especially parents); few opportunities which might have led to conventional careers; and, with no heavy career commitments, more time and energy for their newly developing spiritual interests.

Step 6: Increasing interaction with "spiritual people" and decreasing interaction with those who were critical of their spiritual interests. This was the point at which social networks began to change, as premies moved to secure a better social balance for themselves. Deepening their spiritual interests, they spent less time with friends whose interests were not also changing or who opposed the course they were taking. Their attempt to escape from these conflicts freed them for fuller participation in the emerging spiritual group.

Step 7: Development of the belief that the spiritual realm holds the key to the resolution of one's personal problems and society's social problems. Having abandoned hope that politics or counterculture tactics would transform our society and the world, recruits were ready to accept spirituality as the new answer. They had had sufficiently positive experiences with spiritual practices by then to feel some enthusiasm for the idea that their vision of the future might still be achieved by a sweeping spiritual revolution. This was the point at which their faith in change was rekindled.

Stage III: Growing Determination to Take a Spiritual Direction, Reflected in the Development of new Spiritual Ego-Ideal and Self-Image

Once a person has come to believe in a spiritual solution to personal and social problems, a change of self-image begins. Where, before, the individual may have perceived himself, for example, as a "hippie," atheist, or political revolutionary, there is a shift of perception or self-definition in a spiritual direction. As soon as this happens, a new phase of development begins, for possessing an image of oneself as a "spiritual person" increases availability for spiritual causes, practices, and groups.

Step 8: Strengthening of spiritual aspirations and determination. Believing that a spiritual transformation is what they and the world needed, these young people developed a much stronger sense of will to move in a spiritual direction. This feeling of determination to take a spiritual course, which Starbuck (1914) also found in Christians before their conversion, is an exteemely critical time, for the person is rearranging priorities and making decisions to focus resources of time, energy, etc., more narrowly in a spiritual direction.

Step 9: Creation of a spiritual ego-ideal and self-image. Determined to move more deeply into matters of the spirit, these young people were soon defining themselves in spiritual terms. An image of themselves as "spiritual seekers" became the outward


feature of a new ego-ideal, which included a set of goals and rules of conduct, giving them directions as to how they should change, what they should believe, and how they should behave as "spiritual people." In contrast to their hippie ideals, these new ideals were loftier, yet they were extensions of - not radical departures from - earlier goals.

Stage IV: Increasing Sense of Personal Futility Leading to Greater Psychological Receptivity to the Appeals of Unconventional Spiritual Leaders or Followers Who Make Bold Promises of Change

Grand ideals for oneself and the world naturally lead to feelings of personal inadequacy, based on the idea that the more idealistic a person's goals for change, the more incapable that person will feel in trying to reach them. A sense of personal futility, then, seems almost a natural outgrowth of excessive idealism.

Step 10: Ego weakness arising from the increasing discrepancy between their new spiritual ego-ideals and their capabilities. Aspiring toward rather lofty spiritual heights, these young people began to wonder whether they would be able to put into practice what they hoped to achieve. They found it difficult to discipline themselves and to love others without using drugs. The discrepancy between what they wanted to attain and what they could actually achieve was both great and sobering. In time, they began to feel as if they were incapable of making the change which their new ideals demanded of them, a source of ego weakness described by Cantril (1963) as a factor increasing a person's receptivity to mass movements.

Step 11: Increasing feelings of personal futility. The more they tried to change on their own, the more hopeless these young people felt. Their wills seemed puny and inadequate as they faced the mysteries of the spiritual world and their goals for the future. At first, some hoped for enlightenment through personal effort, but they were disappointed by the almost imperceptible changes they seemed to be making on their own. Others turned to their spiritual friends for help, only to find them equally lost. Feeling incapable of changing themselves or understanding the spiritual mysteries they had discovered, many were ready to accept the belief that they needed a spiritual teacher to guide them.

Step 12: Beginning to look for a guru to follow and a spiritual community to join. Before they had heard about Guru Maharaj Ji and Divine Light Mission, many premies had already begun to search for a guru to follow and a spiritual community to join. Their sense of futility prepared them for surrender, while the fact that they had no firm social ties to a group made them available for mobilization to a community. Both of these factors made them more susceptible to recruitment.

Stage V: Contact and Increasing Attraction to an Unconventional Spiritual Movement as a Result of Positive Interactions with Members and Ideological Compatibility with the Movement's Beliefs

These young people were well prepared to join a spiritual movement at this point, but why did they eventually join Divine Light Mission rather than one of the many other movements seeking recruits at that time? What attracts people to a movement is


a combination of factors: how they become introduced to it, how personally rewarding their initial experiences are with members, how compatible the movement's beliefs are to their own, how they assess the movement's potential, and so forth.

Step 13: The majority of these young people were brought into contact with the Mission through their special ties to premies. Affinity for the premie community was partially a result of the trusting relationship they had developed with friends, relatives, and acquaintances who had already joined. Hearing so many positive comments about the Knowledge and Guru Maharaj Ji from people they trusted made them stop to wonder whether they themselves might not benefit from the Knowledge experience.

Step 14: Positive interaction with members and/or guru. While social affinity did inspire interest, first impressions of premies and Guru Maharaj Ji were more important social factors increasing their attraction to the movement. All reported having positive experiences during their first contacts with members. (For two sides of the question regarding the role of social influences in the commitment process, see Heirich, 1977, who gives great emphasis to them in his Catholic Pentecostal research and Balch & Taylor, 1977, who argue that social influences had minimal impact on mobilization to a UFO cult.)

Step 15: Recognizing the difference between their own stage of futility and the apparent sense of joy, peace, and commitment in the behavior of members. The more these young people associated with premies, the more convinced they became that they had something they wanted and needed. Some members in particular helped to kindle their interest, for they expressed beliefs and attitudes and behaved in ways which were in harmony with the spiritual ideals these eighteen people were trying to reach. By assuming that members had come closer to reaching the ideals they held for themselves, they could not help concluding that the Knowledge experience and devotion to Guru Maharaj Ji must be effective avenues toward a radical change. This made the movement all the more attractive to them.

Step 16: Assumption of the ambivalent status of "aspirant-outsider." In the new spiritual movements there is invariably a secret which is withheld, to be revealed only to those who seek initiation into the community of believers. Possession of the secret is what distinguishes insiders from outsiders, setting up a social gulf which can only be overcome through the decision to join and by adopting a social demeanor regarded by the community as appropriate for membership. Wanting access to this secret, the aspirant becomes sensitive to what is expected in order to make the transition from outsider to insider. Simmel (1964) discussed this social dynamic as one of the inherent features of secret societies.

Within Divine Light Mission, the Knowledge is the secret which sets up the social boundaries between insiders and outsiders. There was a point when many of these young people assumed the ambivalent position of "aspirant-outsider," when they had an affinity for the community but had not yet joined. No matter how emotionally drawn they felt to the movement or to the guru, the fact that they had not received the Knowledge kept them at a social distance.

Stage VI: Acceptance of the Problem-Solving Perspective of the Movement Strengthening the Determination to Join


The participation of aspiring members in the activities of a movement before formal passage into membership prepares the way for the adoption of the movement's ideology. In a sense, they begin to think and act like members before they have been initiated.

Step 17: Initial socialization into the premie community's frame of reference. Those who accepted the Mission's beliefs and were eager for community began to show signs of conformity quite early. As a prelude to surrender, they responded positively to the urging of Guru Maharaj Ji and premies to attend satsang and to do service in the ashrams. Increasing their contact with premies in this way, they became more familiar with the premie frame of reference. Thus, their transition into the social identity of "premie" or "devotee" was made gradually.

Step 18: Beginning to espouse the movement's beliefs, to participate in its rituals and to employ its symbols. Having become more fully bonded to the premie community, although still separate from it by virtue of their ignorance of the Knowledge, most were soon articulating the movement's beliefs, participating in its rituals, and making its symbols visible to others in dress or by displaying pictures of the guru.

Step 19: Embracing the problem-solving perspective of the movement. During the time they were experimenting with the Mission's beliefs, rituals, and symbols a rising conviction was developing that the Knowledge and surrender to Guru Maharaj Ji were the answer they were seeking. The development of this belief effectively narrowed the options available to them, making their decision to receive the Knowledge inevitable.

Step 20: Increasing determination to join, leading to the decision to join. The decision to receive the Knowledge and become a premie was made about this time, although a period of preparation normally followed. Developing the correct mental attitude was considered important. They were told they needed a strong desire for the Knowledge and a "child-like" heart, trusting and ready to be "filled up." They were warned not to have any expectations but just to be receptive to the Knowledge experience.

Stage VII: Initiation and Conversion: The Transformation of Awareness Resulting from a Shift in Identity from the Personality (Ego) to the Spirit (Life Force, or God)

It is widely known that initiation ceremonies bring the individual into a new relationship with the group. Access to the group's secrets, assumption of its collective identity, and acceptance of its rituals and symbols are aspects of the rite of passage into active participation as a full-fledged member. During this transition, the individual modifies a private world of beliefs, attitudes, and meanings in order to abide by the group's interpretation of reality.

When conversion includes such rites, it assumes a social character, shaped by group norms specifying what is appropriate behavior and what is an acceptable proof that the individual has adopted its view of reality. At times, a single act (such as speaking in tongues) may be regarded as a sign that the person has reached the point of decision to enter into a stronger spiritual relationship with the members of the community.


While conversion does have a social character and can be analyzed from that perspective, it may also be a transformative personal experience. For many premies, the Knowledge session struck deeply and made a permanent change in the way they perceived themselves and the world at large. During the Knowledge session, a sudden shift in their awareness led them to a new identity, which became the basis for a gradual set of changes over the next several years. The following two steps are therefore critical aspects of the psychodynamics of conversion as a "rebirth" experience.

Step 21: Identification with their spiritual essence. The sense of rebirth experienced during a conversion may result from a shift in identity, as the person quits identifying with the personality (ego) and begins to identify with the inner spirit. Most of these young people walked into the Knowledge session identifying with their egos; many left feeling they were spirit and believing that the ego was simply a product of social conditioning they need not take too seriously. This discovery put them in contact with what most came to call their "true self," or spiritual essence.

Step 22: Detachment from their personalities (egos) as the focus of identity. Identification with the spirit during dramatic conversions leads to a sense of psychological detachment from the personality (ego), particularly its negative features. These changes create positive feelings bordering on the sublime, for the convert simultaneously identifies with the spirit, which is perceived as the source of peace and love, and relinquishes responsibility for the negative side of the personality, representing the evil and baser feelings. As a consequence, the individual's self-image becomes immediately more positive and the orientation to personal and social problems changes in an optimistic direction.

No longer identifying with their psychological problems, premies could relax and observe their personalities without being attached to what they felt and did. This sense of psychological distance from their problems had immediately positive results in most cases. For example, one premie, who had been so emotionally troubled before his conversion that he could not divulge his deeper problems to the psychiatrists he visited sporadically, found himself being amused by things he did and felt after receiving the Knowledge which had sent him into deep depressions earlier.

Perhaps this is one way a sudden change of perception and identity during conversion prepares the individual for an acceleration of development. It increases feelings of self-regard, self-confidence, and social union as a consequence of an identification with the spirit, while it reduces the sense of guilt for one's problems, negative feelings, and desires through the process of becoming emotionally detached from the ego. Therefore, emotional problems are not taken as seriously, which allows the energy normally channeled into worrying and depression to flow into more constructive thinking and activity. A process very similar to this is described by Clark (1977) in her delination of the stages of transpersonal therapy, which she calls "identification" (taking responsibility for oneself), "disidentification" (disidentification from the ego and self-concept), and "self-transcendence" (concern with service to others and with the quality of life). These stages of development strongly resemble those I have described above as the critical psychodynamics of the conversion process; namely, identification with the spirit and detachment from the ego.


It is in this context that we might wonder whether conversion and successful therapy are not in fact indicative of the same underlying process of development.

Stage VIII: Surrender to the Spirit (God) and to a Spiritual Leader, Characterized by Idealization of the Leader, Identification with Him, Conformity to His Initiatives, and Loss of the Capacity to Criticize Him (Features of the Role of "Devotee")

Surrender is the act of abandoning the individual will to authority. Feeling helpless, the convert seeks the intervention of a higher power. Surrender is a psychological state characterized by idealization of a leader, identification with him, conformity to his initiatives, and the loss of the capacity to criticize him (factors I associated with the charismatic bond in an earlier work, 1973). (An alternative possibility is to investigate as well how individuals surrender to the group, Westley, 1977.)

Step 23: Surrender to the inner spirit (God) and to Guru Maharaj Ji. Premies came to believe that the way to enlightenment was to abandon egoistic concerns and to surrender to their inner spirit (God) and to Guru Maharaj Ji. As a method of change, surrender struck a comfortable balance between their need for order and predictability and their determination to reach enlightenment. By assuming that Guru Maharaj Ji was in complete control of everything (the result of their idealization of him as the Lord), premies achieved a sense of confidence about change and the future. Idealization also facilitated their identification with the guru, providing them with a model of behavior to emulate. Through identification, new values, beliefs, and attitudes could be internalized through the process of imitation. And the willingness to conform and not criticize their guru made premies more receptive to the course of change he advocated. They were secured at one level, but constantly encouraged to change at another. As Suzuki has shown in The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk (1965), surrender as a method of learning and change is not intended to be too comfortable for the student. On the contrary, it is a challenge requiring a deep determination to change, a willingness to suffer, complete trust in the teacher, and perseverance in the face of difficulties. (For an excellent statement of the nature of the guru-devotee relationship, see Wach, 1962).

Step 24: Assumption of the social identity of "devotee." There were two social identities these young people assumed after their initiation. "Premie" was the broadest, since it was synonymous with "member." Anyone who received the Knowledge and stayed in the Mission was considered a premie, whether they had actually surrendered or not. "Devotee" was a more commitment-laden identity a premie assumed during surrender. Its social requirements were more demanding, entailing the abandonment of autonomy to the spirit, obedience to Guru Maharaj Ji and selfless service.

Stage IX: Intensification of Commitment through Increasing Investments and Sacrifices, Greater Social Communion with Members, Reduction of Social Ties in the Outside World, and Mortification of the Ego

Once an individual has assumed a social identity which is tied directly to a


movement, an enlargement of that person's commitment can be expected. For the assumption of such an identity is basically a decision to conform to the collectivity and to move more completely into its sphere of influence. Becoming active, the person comes into a new relationship with the social organization of the movement, which means coming under the influence of its commitment mechanisms. These mechanisms, ably described by Kanter (1968, 1972), are increasing investments and sacrifices, greater social communion with members and the reduction of social ties in the outside world, mortification (which leads to a new identity), and surrender. McGaw (1979) has taken a similar tact by identifying four processes affecting the intensity of commitment:
1) closure (primary group bonds with members),
2) strictness (the exclusiveness of those bonds to the community),
3) consensus (the community's and leadership's roles as reference groups), and
4) cohesion (belief consensus).

Step 25: Increasing investments and sacrifices for the movement. Although several premies had begun to make investments and sacrifices for the movement prior to the Knowledge session, their initiation and the assumption of the "devotee" identity ushered in a new era of giving. For they were expected to dedicate their lives and resources to the movement. Not half-hearted effort, but total commitment was demanded from them. They were asked to give money, to distribute leaflets, to abstain from drugs, to rise early in the morning for meditation, and so on. Mahatmas and the members of Guru Maharaj Ji's family, rather than the guru himself, were the strongest advocates of total sacrifice and dedication. But that is often the case in mass movements. It is normally the cadre of subleaders around the leader who are the major defenders of the leader's charisma and the most vehement spokesmen for the necessity of complete commitment. (See Gerth, 1940.)

Step 26: Increasing social communion with members and decreasing interaction with the outside world. Social enclosure occurs when converts have become separated from people who oppose their spiritual direction and have become dependent on the movement for the satisfaction of needs. As these premies moved deeper into the Mission, they spent more and more time with premies, at satsang, while performing service, and, for many, while living in the ashrams. In fact, they found themselves wanting to associate primarily with other premies. They discounted the opposition of their parents as based on a lack of real understanding, and sometimes broke off friendships with nonpremies on the pretext of a conflict of interests. The extent of their social insulation over the last five years (although not very great) is revealed in the fact that close friendships and marriages were always with other premies. Even now, many are living communally with other premies in ashrams or loosely-structured cooperatives, called "premie houses."

Step 27: Mortification of the ego. Mortification is the process by which the follower's ego is humbled. Through a series of degradation rites, such as prostrations and having to wait for the guru to arrive for a program (sometimes as much as two hours late), premies were constantly forced to observe the reactions of their ego. This is, we are told, one of the ways spiritual teachers from the east try to break down the dominance of the follower's ego in preparation for a thorough-going spiritual change. Through mortification practices, the follower's identity is slowly undermined, as are old beliefs and behavior, in order to make way for a new identity and pattern of behavior.


Stage X: Gradual Modification of Identity, Beliefs, and Behavior Through Commitment, which Secures the Individual's Adherence to the Movement's Norms and Practices and, Therefore, Insures the Accumulation of Experiences Considered by the Movement to Be Essential for a Thorough-Going Change of Character and Outlook.

Once within the movement, members begin slowly to change their identities, beliefs, and behaviors by conformity to group norms which offer a new vision of the world and by finding meaning in that view so that living achieves a deeper purpose; by identifying with a leader as an example of the new way of perceiving, knowing and being; by having their old identities uprooted through mortification; and by experiencing success with the new beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in areas of life which had been dominated by confusion or failure. Simmonds' (1977) study of a Jesus movement group led him to conclude that no radical change of personality occurred for the participants either during or after their conversions. This finding is supported by my own conclusion that, while change does take place, it does so very gradually and over a long period of time. Simmonds' research is seriously limited by the fact that he was examining personal change only over a two and one-half month interval, a period much too short for assessing the extent of change (a fact he, himself, recognized). The experiences of these premies since 1971 demonstrate how very gradually the personality changes, although perceptions may go through sudden alterations and can therefore create dramatic changes of a different order. What can be observed, especially among those who were the most emotionally disturbed before their conversions, is that personal problems developed earlier in life still persist, although they seem somewhat less severe and have a less profound influence on their behavior because premies no longer identify so strongly with their personalities. Now they seem more able to accept themselves and show signs of being able to cope more effectively with their own personal problems and the pressures of living in society. These are subtle, but nonetheless important, changes.


While many specific steps premies took during their spiritual evolution are important for understanding the complexity and subtlety of change, only the stages will be mentioned here. Stated more generally, these stages provide a useful theoretical point of departure for comparing the growth of unconventional spiritual commitments in a variety of religious movements, keeping in mind that they are derived from a single movement and therefore may not be completely applicable to other movements.

Stage I: General disillusionment with conventional values, social organization, and solutions to problems.

Stage II: Deepening or developing faith in a spiritual solution to problems.


Stage III: Growing determination to take a spiritual direction, reflected in the development of a new spiritual ego-ideal and self-image.

Stage IV: Increasing sense of personal futility, leading to greater psychological receptivity to the appeals of unconventional spiritual leaders or followers who make bold promises of change.

Stage V: Contact and increasing attraction to an unconventional spiritual movement as a result of positive interactions with members and ideological compatibility with the movement's beliefs.

Stage VI: Acceptance of the problem-solving perspective of the movement, strengthening the determination to join.

Stage VII: Initiation and conversion: The transformation of awareness resulting from a shift in identity from the personality (ego) to the spirit (life force, or God).

Stage VIII: Surrender to the spirit (God) and to a spiritual leader, characterized by idealization of the leader, identification with him, conformity to his initiatives, and loss of the capacity to criticize him (features of the role of "devotee").

Stage IX: Intensification of commitment through increasing investments and sacrifices, greater social communion with members, reduction of social ties in the outside world, and mortification of the ego.

Stage X: Gradual modification of identity, beliefs, and behavior through commitment, which secures the individual's adherence to the movements' norms and practices and, therefore, insures the accumulation of experiences considered by the movement to be essential for a thorough-going change of character and outlook.

These ten stages agree in many respects with the theory of conversion by Lofland and Stark. Summarizing their findings from a study of a Pacific Coast religious cult, they concluded that, as a general rule, a convert to the cult would tend to:

"1. Experience enduring acutely felt tensions
2. within a religious, problem-solving perspective
3. which leads to defining himself as a religious seeker;
4. encountering the cult at a turning point in his life;
5. wherein an affective bond to adherents is formed (or preexists)
6. where extra-cult attachments are low or neutralized;
7. and where, to become a 'deployable agent' [a convert], exposure to intensive interaction is accomplished." (1965: 874)


There are a number of similarities between my formulation and theirs. Both begin with a notion of personal dissatisfaction, emphasize the importance of adopting a spiritual problem-solving perspective and self-image, regard positive feelings toward members as a salient feature of attraction, and acknowledge the importance of interaction within the movement as a factor increasing the likelihood an individual will join.

While Lofland and Stark's theory is compelling in many ways, there are stages in the spiritual evolution of premies which might help to refine and extend their theory. I will briefly mention some of the key ideas.

The state of personal futility adds a useful psychological component to the discussion of conversion. Based on the growing discrepancy between an individual's new spiritual ego-ideal and capabilities, futility sheds light on a possible motivation for the widespread tendency of religious converts to surrender to spiritual authorities. It also conforms to the psychological theory which claims that there is a collapse of the will prior to sudden conversions, a sense of personal futility which has become so great the person simply gives up. It is at that point, where the will ceases to function, that the conversion experience is thought to take place (see Starbuck, 1914; Christensen, 1965: 27-8).

Acceptance of the problem-solving perspective of the movement is another stage of the premie experience worth further exploration. This is an important phase of the conversion process because it focuses on the individual's rational evaluation of the movement. Here, the individual assesses the movement's orientation to change in terms of his or her private values, goals, and needs. The potential of the movement to satisfy personal hopes and collective goals is made and a self-conscious choice follows. More attention also should be given to conversion as a developmental transition, as various psychologists have suggested (Starbuck, 1914; James, 1958; Allison, 1967, 1969; Levin & Zegans, 1964). There are a number of important and intriguing questions which need more careful examination and which I have discussed briefly above. What is the nature of the psychological changes or alterations of awareness which lead people to experience "rebirth"? How do those changes affect the convert's response to psychological problems and the world at large? How does conversion aid or impede personal growth? Is there an underlying process of change which can be found in the conversion process as well as in successful therapy?

A theory is not complete unless it goes beyond the point at which the individual joins a movement to the stages following initiation - namely, surrender (Stage VIII), the influence of organizational mechanisms which intensify commitments (Stage IX), and the personal changes which arise from commitment (Stage X). Surrender is a key issue bearing on the follower's changing relationship to the spirit and to a spiritual leader. Surrender, and the other mechanisms of'commitment (investment and sacrifice, increasing social communion with members, termination of competing ties in the outside world, and mortification) not only account for the bonding of the individual to the community but help explain the pattern of uniformity among members. Finally, surrender and commitment induce changes in people; therefore they should be analyzed fully in terms of their positive and negative impact on personal identity, values, and behavior.


In an up-date of his earlier work with Stark, Lofland (1977) does move into the realm of the organizational mechanisms of commitment. There, he discusses the stages a person moves through on the way to membership and the organizational influences encountered at each point. The stages he describes are:

1) picking up (contact in a public place),
2) hooking (the process of bringing a prospective member into the movement's territory),
3) encapsulating (insulation of the prospective member within the movement community),
4) loving (persistent and numerous messages of love from the movement's members), and
5) committing (becoming gradually involved in patterns of participation within the movement, leading to heavier investments and sacrifices).

While this formulation is interesting and important as a way of understanding the process by which a movement mobilizes new converts, Lofland fails to integrate these stages into his earlier theory (1965), so one is left wondering about their place in a more comprehensive theory of commitment. For, by themselves, these five stages are an inadequate rendering of the complexity of the larger process of commitment. A theory of conversion and commitment must not only take into account the influence of the movement's norms and mechanisms of commitment, but also the earlier stages and steps which prepared the individual or class of individuals to adopt the movement's view of reality and its recommended solutions for change. What I have tried to do here is delineate, in as much detail as my data allowed, the various stages and steps which seem to bear on the evolutionary nature of the entire process of change. By examining the life process of the convert, what we discover is that change is very gradual in nature, as individuals apparently shun excessive conflict and risks. Even surrender and commitment, which insure conformity to new beliefs and behavior, are unlikely to produce sudden, drastic changes in converts. Looking at the gradual evolution of premies, I cannot help but agree with the conclusion of Marris in Loss and Change (1975). We assimilate new experiences, he says, by integrating them into an already reliable view of reality and by avoiding experiences which threaten to disrupt the sense we have made of the world. Therefore, he continues, change takes place gradually as the individual adds new elements to a reigning ideology, modifying what is perceived and known over such a long period of time that a sense of internal consistency is preserved. One premie captured the essence of this need for time when he said: "Looking back, nothing has ever pressured me to change. When the time was right, and I hesitated each time, I wasn't knocked down but was allowed to linger. When I was ready to stop eating meat or dealing drugs, I stopped. When I was ready for the next step, it came naturally" (Downton, 1979: 73).


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