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Religious Conversion

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Theories of Conversion: Understanding and Interpreting Religious Change
Lewis R. RAMBO Social Compass 1999 46: 259 DOI: 10.1177/003776899046003003 The online version of this article can be found at: http://scp.sagepub.com/content/46/3/259

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Social Compass 46(3), 1999, 259–271

Lewis R. RAMBO

Theories of Conversion: Understanding and Interpreting Religious Change
The author explores the nature of theory and provides an overview of resources for the study of conversion to Islam. Theory is valuable in so far as it illuminates different aspects of a phenomenon. Various theoretical approaches include some dimensions and exclude others. Scholars of conversion must be aware of theoretical issues and systematically utilize theoretical options with sophistication. Such an approach will expand understanding of conversion and also enhance comparative studies of conversion. Theoretical orientations considered in this paper include: globalization, post-colonial, feminist, cross-cultural, religious/spiritual, intellectualist, narrative, identity, ritual, psychoanalytic, archetypal, attribution, attachment, process/stage, and Islamization theory. L’auteur analyse et offre un panorama des théories disponibles pour réaliser une étude des conversions à l’islam. Une connaissance de ces théories est nécessaire, car il faut les utiliser à un degré élevé de sophistication pour tenter d’améliorer la compréhension du phénomène de la conversion et en permettre des études comparatives. Les orientations théoriques considérées ici sont celles de la globalisation, post-coloniale, féministe, interculturelle, religieuse/spirituelle, intellectualiste, narrative, identitaire, rituelle, psychoanalytique, archétypale, des attributions, des attachements émotionnels, des processus et de la théorie de l’islamisation.

The purpose of this article is to examine critically contemporary conversion theory in order to provide resources for those studying the dynamics of conversion to Islam in western Europe. An overview of conversion theories from the human sciences (anthropology, psychology, and sociology) will be provided to expand and enrich understanding of religious change and to create a framework in which to assess the assumptions, methods, and goals of various research strategies. Utilization of diverse theories is necessary to more fully appreciate the complexity and variety of conversion processes and to foster more sophisticated comparative studies of conversion (for an alternative approach to these issues, see Robertson, 1978 and Scroggs and Douglas, 1967).

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The Nature of Theories Theories are valuable in so far as they provide insight into the nature of a phenomenon. They are heuristic devices that guide research methods and goals and provide explanations for phenomena that may otherwise be inexplicable or unusual. These perspectives are convincing because they fit the fundamental worldviews, assumptions, and philosophical/theological systems of a particular scholar and ‘‘schools’’ of thought. Theoretical sophistication requires that scholars examine the assumptions implicit in theories and recognize that theories are limited in their scope. Theoretical systems also differ according to the scope of the phenomenon they attempt to explain. Some theories are focused on narrow concerns, thus they may be seen as micro-theories. Other theories are extremely broad in their concerns, hence macro-theories. Psychoanalysis is an example of the latter. In the study of theory it is crucial to determine the scope and usefulness of a theory. It is possible that psychoanalytic approaches to conversion are valuable, if, and only if, they are focused on particular people, situations, and processes within the conversion process. No theory is universally applicable (at least in the human sciences), and no theory is vast enough to embrace everything. In the study of conversion, various theories should be explored and assessed according to the degree to which they point to important and interesting dynamics, processes, and patterns of religious change. Some theories are more useful for particular religions and for certain historical situations. The use of theory is a human attempt to intellectually grasp the meaning of important phenomena. If there is no analysis or critique of theories and theory building, we may only discover what we were looking for. We reduce complex phenomena to ‘‘bite sized nuggets’’ that we can consume and dismiss with little thought. Theory creation and evaluation requires an explicit articulation of what is included in and what is excluded from a particular theory. For instance, most psychological theories neglect social and cultural issues. Likewise, most sociological theories either disregard or trivialize the psychological dimension. If we learn to view theories as important, but limited, tools for human understanding and explanation, we can approach a phenomenon, such as conversion, with humility and expand our understanding rather than merely reinforce our own expectations and biases. Theoretical Bias Constructing theories of conversion can be an invidious enterprise. A religion’s ‘‘insiders’’ assume that one converts to ‘‘their’’ religion because the religion is true, except when they are suspicious of fraud or deception. An ‘‘outsider’’ never asserts that someone converts to a religion that is different from her/his own because it is true. The ‘‘outsider’’ must find an explanation that is compatible with his or her assumptions about the nature of reality. The extremely religious person might assert that the person

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converted to another religion because of demonic or evil forces, that the person was ill informed (they do not know the truth), or that extrinsic motivations or attractions seduced, manipulated, or enticed them to adopt a ‘‘false’’ religion. The secular person, including many intellectuals, uses explanations that are related to psychological needs, sociological factors, cultural forces, economic incentives or deprivations, and/or political constraints or inducements. Theories of conversion often tell us more about the one making the attribution than the person or group that has converted. Generally, the theory is an attempt by a scholar to make sense out of something otherwise inexplicable to his/her worldview. Why would anyone want to do that? Some things are self-evident and other things require explanation. Given the secular orientation of most academics (at least in the United States, the United Kingdom, and most of northern Europe), it is no wonder that conversion is a perplexing phenomenon to them. Why would anyone give up the freedom, independence and ‘‘truth’’ of the scientific, secular worldview for a life requiring discipline, restraint, obedience, tithing, etc.? Furthermore, graduate school education influences theoretical development. Sociologists emphasize social factors when explaining conversion. Psychologists credit the inner workings of the psyche as the greatest influence. And, anthropologists posit cultural forces as the only plausible explanation of conversion. Assessment of Theories Theories should not be considered true or false, but rather adequate or inadequate. A student of conversion addresses the following questions: — What is the origin of a particular theory? Knowing the history of a discipline will facilitate an understanding of the assumptions, methods, and goals of a particular theory. — On what dimension or dimensions of the phenomenon does the theory focus? The focus may be personal, social, cultural, religious, etc. Some theories emphasize the importance of certain dimensions, but may neglect the crucial role of others. Theorists must recognize that dimensions have a different valence in diverse circumstances. — What is the database of the theory? Is the theory derived from the theorist’s specific experience with a particular religion, a certain method of inquiry, or a specific agenda of the research? Some theorists shape their theory on the type of group that they have studied. For instance, using Messianic Jews as a database focuses one’s theoretical orientation. — There is no problem with developing a theory for a particular kind of group or conversion as long as the theorist generalizes the theory carefully. — What are the strengths and weaknesses of a particular theory? Being honest will enable us to use different theories where relevant and discard those that are not illuminating to a project.

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— What are the political, theological, or ideological consequences of using a particular theory? The conflict about New Religious Movements in Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States is a prime example of the polarization of scholarship regarding issues such as ‘‘brainwashing’’ and ‘‘coercive persuasion’’. — What attracts one to a particular theory? To what degree does one’s own history within a particular discipline influence one’s perspective so that one is unable to see other issues or, at the very least, understand the perspective of those advocating an alternative theory? The following is an overview of different theoretical options. Globalization Theory This theory asserts that the growth of New Religious Movements, Islamic Reform and Revitalization Movements, and Charismatic Christianity are made possible by the ease of global communication systems (including television, radio, internet, tape recorders, video cameras and video players) and the ease of mobility via airline transportation, automobile, trains, etc. (see Brouwer et al., 1996; Huntington, 1996; Metcalf, 1994; Poewe, 1994). Through various forms of mass communication the desires and yearnings of people who are displaced, dispossessed, and searching for spiritual renewal and transformation are contacted, cultivated, and recruited to new religious options (for approaches to this issue from the perspective of rationalization and secularization theory, see Hefner, 1993; Kaplan, 1995; van der Veer, 1996). Post-colonial theory An emerging perspective that offers rich new insights into the conversion process, especially in the missionary context, is post-colonial theory. This approach examines the experience of millions of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America with imperialism and colonialization. The overwhelming presence of military, economic, and cultural power shaped the superstructures and infrastructures of societies, cultures, economies, and subjectivities of oppressed peoples all over the world. Conversion to various ‘‘world’’ religions (especially Christianity) is interpreted as a part of the ‘‘colonialization of the mind and spirits’’ of the dominated peoples. Paradoxically, however, some post-colonial theorists acknowledge the complex blending of submission and resistance in the conversion process (see Kaplan, 1995; Rafael, 1998; Viswanathan, 1998). In addition, post-colonial theory alerts the conversion theorist to the dynamics of the dialectical nature of conversion. In fact, the ‘‘convert’’ often changes the ‘‘converter’’, in some cases radically. Furthermore, the ‘‘syncretism’’ of the ‘‘world’’ religion and the ‘‘indigenous’’ religion sometimes creates a vibrant and creative new, independent religious perspective. Thus, conversion is not merely passive and submissive, but resistant and innovative.

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Feminist theory This theory points to the importance of gender in all aspects of life. In western society, patriarchy has dominated society, culture, and religion. Male domination of women has given priority to male perspectives in a number of important social, cultural, and economic domains. As a result, feminist studies of conversion have only recently emerged. Feminist theory points to issues that need to be addressed in the study of religious change. Do women experience conversion differently from men, and, if so, in what ways? Do religious models of conversion constrict and distort women’s motivations, needs, and desires? Is religious conversion healing and helpful to women, or another mode of domination? It is imperative that conversion studies incorporate feminists’ concerns in future research and writing (see Brereton, 1991; Connor, 1994; Juster, 1989, 1994) Cross-cultural theory Students of conversion need to explicitly and systematically incorporate cross-cultural concerns into their theories. I will say a few words about this issue within the field of psychology, but it would apply to all disciplines. We must explicitly acknowledge the severe limitations of scientific psychology that has been primarily developed in Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. With few exceptions, scientific psychology is based upon research using people of European racial and cultural heritage. Because of this, patterns of family life, modes of selfhood, norms of mental health, etc., may differ from those from other racial, ethnic, and national origins. Most psychologists tend to universalize their perceptions of personality, motivation, self, mental health norms, etc., to the entire world. This has been pernicious in using psychology in non-western settings or people with Asian, Latin American, African, etc. backgrounds. Recently Alan Roland (1988, 1996), along with other psychologists, has attempted to develop psychological theories that are culturally sensitive and open to other modalities of subjectivity. After extensive research in India and Japan, Roland developed a model of selfhood having some crosscultural value. Rather than the stereotyped notion of the isolated self of the West and the group mentality of the East, he stresses dimensions of selfhood that have different emphases in different cultures and at different stages of a person’s life. His five dimensions are individual self, family self, spiritual self, developing self, and private self. All of these are present, to one degree or another, in every culture. In the West, the individual self is given special status among well educated, urban people. These people also possess other spheres of selfhood, but in many cases to a much lesser degree. In India and Japan, the family self is more fully developed and most people are focused on that aspect of selfhood. Roland’s ideas are very important to conversion studies. Many western scholars use the norms of the individual self in their assessment of conversion motivations, dynamics, and processes. Thus, ‘‘group’’ conversion or conversions of entire families are deemed less worthy of respect than conversions of individuals who confront intellectual

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and religious issues in a rational manner. The norm in the West is the isolated, autonomous person who makes decisions based on rational calculations, separate from family pressure and the constraint of traditional religion. A viable and valuable psychological theory of conversion requires recognition of and appreciation for different forms of selfhood in the person and group before a conversion and to the contours of selfhood after the conversion has developed. These issues also apply to other disciplines such as anthropology and sociology. Religious/spiritual theory Scholars in the human sciences, almost without exception, neglect, trivialize, or totally reject the role of religion and/or spirituality in their theories of conversion (see Renard, 1996). This stance is erroneous in that it avoids to ‘‘what’’ one converts. Religion and spirituality are important to conversion processes in two distinct ways. First, various religious/spiritual traditions provide models, guidelines, or theologies for a valid conversion. Within a tradition, there is a ‘‘good’’ and ‘‘bad’’ or a ‘‘right’’ and ‘‘wrong’’ conversion. Particular rituals are required, motives are evaluated, beliefs are expected, and outcomes are prescribed. Thus, the nature of a person’s conversion experience is, to some degree, informed, shaped, and structured by the myths, rituals, and symbols of a particular tradition. It should be noted that some of the theological literature on this topic is designed to draw boundaries between those ‘‘inside’’ and those ‘‘outside’’ the religion, or, in some cases, the ‘‘saved’’ and the ‘‘lost’’. For many people, the motivation for and experience of conversion is shaped by substantive religious/spiritual desires, yearnings, and experiences. This dimension, at least for some people, cannot be reduced to other explanations. Religion and spirituality, like aesthetics, should be considered a domain of life and experience that has its own validity. There are, I would argue, experiences, both cognitive and affective, that are distinctive to religion and spirituality. These are not always necessarily good or ‘‘healthy’’, but they are categories of experience that should be taken into account when we create theories of conversion (Salzman, 1953). Intellectualist theory Robin Horton articulated one of the most influential theories of conversion in the 1970s (Horton, 1971, 1975a, 1975b; Horton and Peel, 1976). According to Horton, human beings are active agents who seek to understand, predict, and control space–time events. Human beings’ cognitive and intellectual activities are geared to the social and cultural world they inhabit. Horton noted that the fundamental worldview of small-scale African societies consisted of several spheres. The microcosm was the daily world that occupied most of a community’s energy. Their religious concerns revolved around the explanation, prediction, and control of their concrete world. Virtually all groups had a macrocosm—the wider world—that was only

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minimally developed because their daily life was focused on the microcosm. With increasing mobility and interaction with people from the wider social world, the Africans sought to expand their myths, rituals, and symbols to include the macrocosm. Africans came into contact with Christianity and Islam. In order to make sense of the new situation and wider social, cultural world, they expanded their cosmology. Horton argues that conversion took place differentially based on the degree to which a group was focused on the microcosm or macrocosm (for critiques of Horton’s theory, see Fisher, 1973, 1985 and Ifeka-Moller, 1974). Narrative theory Narrative theory assumes that human beings shape and comprehend their lives by telling stories. In order to make sense of one’s life, a narrative must be constructed or adopted. In some religions, the reconstruction of one’s biography is a central element in the converting process. Biographical reconstruction and the resulting narrative give new meaning to a person’s definition of self, identity, relationships, and God (or some other comprehensive understanding of the world and life). Adopting a new story involves resonating with a story (for whatever reason the new story is relevant to the person), finding or building connections between ‘‘my’’ story and ‘‘the’’ story, and retelling or incorporating of the story into one’s own life narrative (see Booth, 1995; Stromberg, 1993). Identity theory Many students of conversion have pointed to the notion of identity as a crucial concern for converts given the pace of urbanization, modernization, secularization, and the resulting pluralization of self and community understanding. As a result, old notions of self, relationships, communities, and convictions are under enormous pressure. Identity theory, especially in social psychology and sociology, provides a framework within which to understand people’s need for convictions and values that consolidate understandings of the self, to structure relationships with other people, and to provide a sense of continuity and connection with a worldview that transcends the flux and fragmentation of the contemporary world (see Erikson, 1954; Gillespie, 1991). Ritual theory Since the publication of Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process in 1969, anthropology and religious studies are not the same. Before, especially in Protestant circles, ritual was denigrated as meaningless and mechanical repetition. Turner and more recent students of ritual have conclusively demonstrated that ritual is not only inherent in human behavior and consciousness, but also creative and constructive in the formation of communities and the shaping of subjectivity. Recently, scholars of conversion have noted the importance of ritual in conversion processes. Finn’s book

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From Death to Rebirth: Ritual and Conversion in Antiquity (1997) provides us with a fine study of early Christianity as well as a model of how ritual theory can be utilized in the study of conversion. Ritual action and religious performance create, shape, and sustain religious and spiritual experience and provide reinforcement for religious belief. Anthropologists have long known the importance of rituals, but now it is time for sociologists, psychologists, historians, and all students of conversion to draw upon this rich resource. Psychoanalytic theory Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory continues to be influential in many circles. For the psychoanalytically oriented scholar, the dynamics of conversion are a reflection of the primal forces within the personality. The id, ego, and superego engage in constant conflict. Human proclivities propel persons to seek gratification of urgent and powerful desires, but culture, religion, and the conscience (superego) serve to constrain. The dramas of childhood maturation are recapitulations of the evolution of the human race. Though Freud had many different views of religion, conversion processes are generally seen as fragile compromises in the ongoing conflict of the life and death instinct. The drama of infant, mother, and father are replicated in the conversion process. Guilt, terror, grief, and emotional deprivations, sufferings, and desires catapult the person into religious rituals, beliefs, and relationships that provide some gratification to fragile and fallible human beings. Whatever one may think of Freud and psychoanalysis, psychoanalytic theory has influenced much of the psychology of conversion research and theory. One of the major contributions of the psychoanalytic tradition is the vigilance for pathology. Of course, Freudians tend to see religion and conversion as inherently pathological. Others, in reaction to Freud, have demonstrated that religion and conversion are healthy and life-giving. Either extreme is a distortion. Being alert to the possibilities of pathology, distortions, and other forms of destructiveness is appropriate, if not mandatory (see Murphy, 1979; Salzman, 1953; Stone, 1992; Ullman, 1989). Archetypal theory Based upon the work of Carl G. Jung, archetypal theory asserts that there are fundamental, universal patterns within the human psyche that give form to human experience. Archetypal theory postulates that conversion takes place when a person is captivated by a powerful religious symbol or experience that meets profound needs within that person’s psyche. The symbol systems of most religions are dramatic and compelling renditions of the human predicament eliciting deep-rooted yearnings in millions of people. Scholars of conversion must, therefore, take seriously the symbol systems of religion in order to understand the attraction and effect upon a convert (see Smith, 1990).

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Attribution theory The universal human need to find meaning in life is the basis for attribution theory. This includes meaning for inexplicable daily events as well as more profound issues of the human predicament, including undeserved suffering, death, and those issues that haunt human consciousness. Attribution theory may be seen not only as a major motivation for the adoption of a new religious perspective in order to make sense of life and to have a sense of purpose, but also as a major mechanism within the conversion process. Adopting a new system of attributions about the nature of self, others, and God is a significant aspect of what happens for many converts. This theory is valuable in stressing the cognitive and intellectual spheres of conversion (see Proudfoot and Shaver, 1975; Spilka et al., 1985). Attachment theory Based on the work of John Bowlby, this theory asserts that human beings form emotional ties that reflect the connection of an individual with their original primary caregiver. Conversion can be a compensation for severely deprived and distorted parenting patterns or it can be congruent with parental modes. Utilization of this approach must be sensitive to the sociocultural modes of family relationships developed in diverse racial, ethnic, and national groups (see Kirkpatrick, 1997). Affective and emotional issues are especially illuminated in this theory. Process theory Lofland and Stark’s ‘‘Becoming a World-Saver’’ (1965) introduced an approach to conversion that stressed the complexity and extended sequence of the process. Some have criticized and expanded the theory, but all process theorists agree that religious change takes place over time and consists of various elements that are dynamic and synergistic. Many process theoretical models have been developed and the nature of the stages has varied. Building on the work of Lofland and Stark, (1965), Tippett (1977) and Downton (1980), I proposed a process theory of conversion consisting of seven stages: context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, and consequences. Process models attempt to be inclusive of a variety of factors and forces operative in religious change. This process model is a heuristic device used to organize the complex field of conversion studies. I do not believe my eclectic stage theory is universal, but rather a cartography of options in the study of conversion (see also Downton, 1980; Snow and Phillips, 1980; Rambo, 1993). The theory is meant to be suggestive, not constricting (for a critique of Lofland and Stark’s theory, see Snow and Phillips, 1980 and Lofland, 1977). Islamization theory This article assumes that scholars of Islam are aware of the traditional theories of conversion to Islam. For those who are not, I will give a very brief

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overview (see Levtzion, 1977 for a description of relevant issues). Studies of conversion to Islam in various geographical areas include the following: Africa (Horton, 1971; Ikenga-Metuh, 1985; Fisher, 1985), Australia (Bouma, 1997), South East Asia (Coatalen, 1981), India (Eaton, 1993; Mujahid, 1989), the Malay Archipelago (Hamid, 1982), Britain (Köse, 1996b), Europe (Allievi, 1998) and the United States (Kepel, 1994/1997; Poston, 1992). Few of these studies emphasize individuals. Most focus on Islamization, in other words, the creation of social, cultural, religious, and political environments in which individuals, families, communities, and societies flourish as Islamic. Many studies are historical (see Arnold, 1896/1961; Bulliet, 1994; Dennett, 1950; DeWeese, 1994; Eaton, 1993; Watt, 1979). There are also examinations of the historical process of Islamic conversion using various interpretative models including the diffusion of innovation theory by Bulliet (1979). Eaton’s (1985, 1993) splendid study of conversion to Islam in India makes a substantial contribution. His work is unusual in that it systematically tests the adequacy of various theories. In addition, Köse’s excellent research (1996a) critically examines the usefulness of psychological and sociological theories of conversion. Traditional theoretical explanations for Islamic conversion include the use of force, attractiveness of Islam as a movement for the liberation of slaves and soldiers, compliance with new political regimes, desire for the privileges of Islamic political power (e.g. tax relief), influence of traders (through intermarriage and patronage relationships), and attractiveness of monotheism (especially for those from ‘‘pagan’’ and ‘‘primal’’ religions). I hope that this article, along with the others in this special issue, deepens the knowledge and understanding of conversion to Islam in history and in the contemporary world.

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Smith, Curtis D. (1990) ‘‘Religion and Crisis in Jungian Analysis’’, Counseling and Values 34: 177–185. Snow, David A. and Phillips, Cynthia L. (1980) ‘‘The Lofland–Stark Conversion Model: A Critical Reassessment’’, Social Problems 27(4): 430–447. Spilka, Bernard, Shaver, Phillip and Kirkpatrick, Lee A. (1985) ‘‘A General Attribution Theory for the Psychology of Religion’’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 24(1): 1–19. Stromberg, Peter G. (1993) Language and Self-Transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press. Stone, Michael H. (1992) ‘‘Religious Behavior in the Psychiatric Institute 500’’, in Mark Finn and John Gartner (eds) Object Relations Theory and Religion, pp. 141–154. Westport, CT: Praeger. Tippett, Alan R. (1977) ‘‘Conversion as a Dynamic Process in Christian Mission’’, Missiology 5(2): 203–221. Ullman, Chana (1989) The Transformed Self: The Psychology of Religious Conversion. New York: Plenum Press. van der Veer, Peter (ed.) (1996) Conversion to Modernities: The Globalization of Christianity. New York: Routledge. Viswanathan, Gauri (1998) Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Watt, W. Montgomery (1979) ‘‘Conversion in Islam at the Time of the Prophet’’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47(4S): 721–731. Whaling, Frank (1981) ‘‘A Comparative Religious Study of Missionary Transplantation in Buddhism, Christianity and Islam’’, International Review of Mission 70(280): 314–333. Woodberry, J. Dudley (1992) ‘‘Conversion in Islam,’’ in H.N. Malony and S. Southard (eds) Handbook of Religious Conversion, pp. 22–40. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.

Lewis R. RAMBO is Professor of Psychology and Religion at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He earned his BA at Abilene Christian University in 1967, his MDiv at Yale University Divinity School in 1971, and his MA and PhD degrees were granted by the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1973 and 1975. He has been a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the co-author of Psychology of Religion: A Guide to Information Sources (Gale Research Press, 1975), The Divorcing Christian (Abingdon Press, 1983), and Understanding Religious Conversion (Yale University Press, 1993). ADDRESS: SFTS, 2 Kensington Road, San Anselmo, CA 94960, USA. [email: LRambo@sfts.edu]

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