Soc 461/561

Lecture 16: (De) Conversion and Socio-Cultural Change

May 5, 1999



Dean R. Hoge, Benton Johnson, and Donald A. Luidens, "Why Mainline Churches are Declining," Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Mainline Protestant Baby Boomers. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Decline of mainline Protestantism: a central fact of religious landscape in United States for more than three decades. Membership losses, weakening financial support & loss of nerve characterize decline.

Sixties counterculture is not a major source of mainline Protestant decline.

Decline is a result of two long-term processes.

  1. progressive weakening of mainline church life; &,
  2. gradual increase of relativism, individualism, and pluralism in middle class culture.


Kelley’s "internal loss of strength" thesis: Strong churches grow and weak churches decline.

Strong churches:

    1. total, closed belief system deemed sufficient for all purposes & needs no revision.
    2. distinct code of conduct that sets members apart from nonmembers.
    3. exercise strict discipline over members in matters of belief & practice.
    4. demand high commitment of time & energy from members.
    5. maintain missionary zeal & eager to tell good news to all.

Weak churches:

    1. relativism, permissiveness, & individualism in matters of belief.
    2. tolerance of internal diversity & pluralism.
    3. lack of enforcement of doctrinal behavior standards.
    4. tolerance of limited commitment to church.
    5. little effective sharing of convictions or spiritual insights w/ church.
    6. preference for dialogue w/ outsiders rather than attempts to convert them.

Kelley’s premise: people are attracted to religious groups because they want compelling & clear-cut answers to questions about meaning of human existence.

Hoge, Johnson & Luidens: there is more to mainline Protestant membership losses than internal loss of strength.

Hoge, Johnson & Luidens thesis: mainline decline is due to a combination of institutional & cultural factors.


Hypothesized Explanatory Factors Behind Church Decline:

(from Hoge, Johnson, and Luidens, Vanishing Boundaries, p. 12)

Cultural Factors

Increase of liberal education

Rise of pluralism

Rise of individualism

Rise of privatism

Growing anti-institutionalism


Social Structural Factors

Decline of community

Changes in family life and the role of women

Decline of switching-in


Institutional Factors

Failure to be relevant

Too much social activism

Failure of leadership and programs

Loss of internal strength (Kelley’s thesis)


Max Heirich, "Change of Heart: A Test of Some Widely Held Theories About Religious Conversion," American Sociological Review, 83 (3) 1977: 653-680.

Two different issues: the nature of conversion and an argument about its causes.

Usual social scientific indicators or explanations of conversion:

  1. fantasy solution to stress;
  2. previous conditioning or socialization (e.g., parental orientation);
  3. interactions that make a different understanding of one’s experience possible; patterns of interpersonal influence; &,
  4. a combination of the above.

To Heirich, these explanations are either too general or not general enough.


Heirich’s Thesis: "Rather than argue about which truth is more accurate [i.e., religious or social scientific explanations of conversion], we might more fruitfully include as complementary examples a process that seems fundamental to human experience. I refer to the assertion of a sense of ultimate grounding—one that provides a clear basis for understanding reality, that provides meaning and orientation for understanding one’s situation and acting in relation to it" (673).

Steven M. Tipton, "Conversion and Cultural Change," Individualism & Commitment in American Life: Readings on the Themes of Habits of the Heart. Edited by Robert N. Bellah et al. New York: Harper & Row, 1987

During the turbulent sixties, youth came to deny the traditional ethics of their parents in favor of countercultural values. Yet, however hard they tried, countercultural values were too difficult for them to live out. So at the end of their youth and the decade they converted to new religious movements that enabled them to resolve their moral dilemma of having rejected the traditions of their parents and not being able to live according to countercultural values. This meant being born again as a charismatic Christian, seeking Enlightenment along Asian lines or actualizing one’s self in the human potential movement.

With the civil rights, student free speech and anti-war movements, an underlying disaffection from traditions convictions about what this society is and what its way of life were about occurred. There was increasing frustration and disillusionment with American society’s apparent failure to practice its own highest ideals—and this frustration and disillusionment grew particularly among the young. And although the crest of the counterculture is long past there is still confusion about America’s meaning.

So Tipton’s story is a story about sixties youth’s efforts to make moral sense of American society and their lives within that society.

What do we go by? How do we think it out, and live it out? If you inquire into your own moral views will you find the traditional answers still clear and powerful? If not, and you find yourself unsure of what to go by, unmoved by our received ideas and symbols, and uneasy in the world around us, what then?

Then we cease being observers safely watching others healing shamanically, reaching for Hindu moksha, receiving Judaic redemption, attaining Buddhist illumination, coming into conformity with the Tao, etc.

Eager or unwilling, we join others in a cultural drama where efforts to renew or transform traditions functions as cues. Whether we take their examples as paths to follow or avoid, possibilities to test, or puzzles to solve, the answers they give us about how we should live cannot simply be dismissed. For their questions are our own.


Tipton’s Thesis: sixties youth joined new religious movements to make moral sense of their lives.


Styles of ethical evaluation:

Style Tradition Oriented to Mode of Knowledge Virtue

  1. Authoritative [biblical— Authority (God)—Faith/Conscience—Obedience]
  2. Regular [humanist—Rules— Reason— Rationality]
  3. Consequential[utilitarian—Consequences—Cost/benefit calculation—Utility]
  4. Expressive[romantic—Self & situation—Intuition/feelings—Sensitivity]

"We think our way to moral actions. Circumstances influence our thinking, but they do not do it for us."