Love Vs. Conversion

A key pillar of modern morality is the sanctity of romantic love.  We reel in horror at the thought of “backward” societies, including our ancestors’, who arrange marriages without intense emotional romantic love.  While they think it nice if arranged partners have such romantic feelings, if that does not happen such partners are not to look for love elsewhere. They think a life without romantic love can be a fine life.

An intense emotional religious conversion is not the same as an intense emotional romantic love, and one is not a substitute for the other.  But the two have much in common.  In fact, one could argue that someone who has lived a life without ever experiencing an intense religious conversion is nearly as emotionally impoverished as someone who had never experienced an intense romantic love.

Yet our modern sensibility does not reel in horror at the thought of a life lived without an intense religious conversion.  In fact, among our cultural elites religious feelings are seen as embarrassing, and low status; they think lives are usually better without such conversions.  Why?

Yes, religious conversion can lead to false and destructive beliefs. But then so can romantic love; it is not at all clear which one is worse by that measure.  An obvious if shallow explanation: in our society religion is low status, while romantic love is high status. Perhaps either a life without romantic love isn’t nearly as bad as we think, or a life without religious conversion is much worse than we think.

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  • Cyan

    Falling in love and an intense emotional religious conversion are both kinds of viewquakes. I’d happily assert that a life lived without experiencing a viewquake is an impoverished life.

    I’d also like an evaluable predicate to identify an “elite”.

  • Alex salter

    1) How close are romantic love and religious conversions as substitutes? Are we sure they affect the brain in the same place/way?

    2) Evolutionary approach: romantic love is probably a positive (benefits from propogation of the species outweigh the costs in conflict, etc.) whereas a compelling argument could be made for the neutrality or even negativity of religious conversion (sure, religion was the basis of the institutes of higher learnings in the Middle Ages, but holy wars are nasty things).

    3) Social pressure approach: you already addressed this.

    Overall, I agree with your last point: a life without religious conversion and/or romantic love can be much more enjoyable than many think possible.

    • ChuckB

      I’m guessing that you’ve experience neither. Too bad.

  • tndal

    I can see the possible utility of falling in love in an evolutionary biology context (as a randomizer primarily) , but see no analogous utility in spiritual conversion.

    Perhaps the latter is a vestigial genetic remnant of defunct cerebral mechanisms, only occasionally (and unfortunately) triggered today in schizophrenia, religious conversion and other disorders. Think of Julian Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” wherein the hypothesis that, sometime in our recent history, conscious thought replaced hallucination:

  • cournot

    As the comments make evident, Robin’s guess is correct. The cognitive elite see no “rational” reason to value religion so religious conversion is “low status”. Love or infatuation is high status. Even marriage — of the traditional sort which emphasizes children’s welfare over companionate self-realization — is low status. And there is plenty of evidence that marriage is increasingly about companionship and not economic or social gain.

    Not coincidentally we are also in a period of instability, massive divorce, and alpha PUA.

    Yes. We are living in the dreamtime.

  • David E

    I’m with Cyan on this one. I think a life without peak experiences would be impoverished—but religious experience is just one of many varieties of peak experience. I’ll take looking at the stars on a summer night over visiting cathedrals for my experience of the wondrous strange.

  • Robert Koslover

    If one simply expands the umbrella of religious belief to include Marxism and Environmentalism, then it would seem that there no longer exists a shortage of the aforementioned conversion experiences among our cultural elites.

  • Psychohistorian

    In what sense is religion low-status? How many atheists hold major public office?

    • Psychohistorian–For the most part, in our society the high-status thing to do is to declare a religious conviction, but treat it with only low to moderate seriousness. Open atheists don’t have a shot at the presidency, but neither did Pat Robertson. See also Thing White People Like #2: Religions That Their Parents Don’t Belong To. (But even among capital-letter White People, it would be low status to pursue a pseudo-Eastern religion to the exclusion of most other White People-approved activities).

    • Atheism isn’t well thought of among the populace at large, so atheists will often lose at things that involve a straight up popular vote. But at any elite position that doesn’t require a popular vote to get, the highly religious are at a distinct disadvantage.

    • tonyf

      I do not know how many. But at least one example is Fredrik Reinfelt, prime minister of Sweden and chairman of the largest non-socialistic political party in Sweden (the Moderate coalition party) and leader of the presently governing liberal and conservative non-socialistic coalition (at least for two more weeks to the upcomming elections, but he does very well in the polls right now). (He does not use the word “atheist” but call himself a nonbeliever in any god.)

  • Salem

    I don’t think the author’s point is that romantic love and religious conversion are necessarily similar. I think he notes that they are potentially life-enriching experiences, and wonders why the lack of one is considered a tragedy, while a lack of the other is considered to be no loss.

    Our society’s highest value is (pseudo-)rational atomic self-realisation. Traditional religion and traditional marriage both mean giving up independence and choosing instead duty and restraint. Hence they are low status. Even traditional romantic love in the sense of an absolute commitment to each other is rather gauche – no-one really means “till death do us part” any more. But modern romantic love – in the sense of a just-as-long-as-it-makes-me-happy, conditional relationship – is high status. As it has been decreed that men and women are identical in every way, the only politically correct basis for romantic love is the physical act of sex** – which has therefore acquired the highest possible status. “A life without romantic love” is euphemism for “a life without good sex.” That is the greatest possible horror. And, of course, even people who don’t hold these values don’t like to argue with them publicly. Saying “I don’t think that good sex is important” is a strong negative signal for several reasons.

    **This is also why traditional disapproval of homosexuality strikes modern elites as ludicrous.

  • Robin,

    Most people know that love can make you dumb, but think it’s possible to have love without (too much of?) that. Or, they’ll make a distinction between “love” and “infatuation,” or some such thing. For myself, I know I can at least experience pleasant feelings of mild affection vaguely resembling love without doing anything stupid. But I don’t know of analogous proposals for religious experiences. On the other hand, if anyone does have advice on how to experience a religious conversion without doing or thinking anything too stupid, perhaps it would be something I should pursue.

  • Probably a status thing, as the elite have something just like a religious conversion, only based on the material world — it’s called “finding yourself,” typically in a foreign land or in a different part of their own country, like living and working among the poor (Teach for America).

    Most of them try it during their semester abroad in Florence, or during their year (or five years) off from the real world of college before joining the real world again for grad school.

    Something like the Grand Tour that well-to-do Europeans used to do a couple hundred years ago. Doesn’t seem to go back much farther than the point where Europeans began secularizing.

  • If you are interested in the kind of intense emotional religious experience that parallels intense emotional romantic love the key text is “Ecstasy:A study of some secular and religious experiences” by Marghanita Laski. Review

    These are very personal experiences. They sit awkwardly with organised religion. They can be at odds with dogma of the experiencer’s own faith. I doubt that our cultural elites are much aware of these kinds of religious feelings and do not see them as embarrassing and low status.

    The thing that gets you sneered at is religious enthusiasm, decoding the bible (or other text) yourself, and insisting on divine sanction for the interpretation that you have chosen.

    Let me try to explain the difference between religious ecstasy and enthusiasm enthusiasm by making up quotes:

    Religious Ecstasy: “Let me tell you about this wonderful experience I had. It was so special, beyond words,…Its like, well, its not like anything really, its beyond chopping the world up into bits, deny the oneness,…, blah, blah,… Jesus,… Buddha,… Gandhi,… Scriabin,…etc.”

    Religious Enthusiam: “The end times are coming, and hell and damnation. It is all in the bible. We must take up arms. I am to be the general in this battle for I have been granted the vision of what we must do…. and send money…”

    • Salem

      I think this is an excellent point.

      Perhaps the takeaway from all this is that enthusiasm/sincerity is low-status and cynicism/post-modernism is high-status? And so framing things as purely personal experiences (“I feel a oneness with the universe” or “I feel romantic love”) is higher status than framing things as obligations or universal truths, as is common in traditional forms of both religion and marriage.

  • William H. Stoddard

    I think for that actually to count as an explanation, we need to have some discussion of why romantic love is high status and religious conversion is low status. Surely that’s not the case in all human societies

  • I think it sheds light on this question to consider the attitude society has towards artificially induced feelings of religious conviction. Despite it’s forbidden nature I think a fair number of high status people would be willing to trumpet the virtues of experiencing religious conviction on LSD or the like. Take away the forbidden nature of the experience and I expect it would be viewed much like experiencing romantic love.

    This suggests that the underlying issue is that romantic love is really only a feeling, you can experience romantic love even while maintaining intellectual skepticism about marriage, commitment and even the wisdom of your relationship. Religious conversion bundles a certain experience with the intellectual conviction that it is a good guide to the truth. Thus we (or at least I) look down on people who have a emotional religious conversion because it usually indicates a failure to keep your intellectual conclusions isolated from feelings you have good reason to believe don’t provide good evidence (you knew other people had these feelings before)

  • I had a religious conversion, and it was horrible.
    Fear of eternal torture by not following vague, absent, contradictory, insane, and impossible rules, while trying to be nice and good.

    Fortunately, I did not reach the insanely deluded stage. I stopped at the brink of insanity, and returned to rationality.

    My experience at romantic love was pleasant, but with plenty of frustrations, but overall a positive experience, though nowhere near as far out as portrayed in movies.

    So, with me as a representative sample of both phenomena, I guess love has more status than religious conversion the same way strawberries have more status than excrements.

  • Perhaps either a life without romantic love isn’t nearly as bad as we think

    Pssst. Don’t tell this to Andrew Sullivan or the other gay marriage advocates.

  • I’m not sure that religious experience in general is low status in our society, though some kinds certainly are.

    Serious adherence to an organized religion however is low status, though it co-exists with an uneasy recognition of the greatness of the cultural heritage of the major world religions.

  • Kenny

    What counts as a religious conversion? I am confident that my experience discovering rationality (initially via Ayn Rand’s fiction) was extremely similar, if not functionally equivalent, to an intense religious conversion. I even displayed stereotypical zealotry and evangelism common among the recently converted. I imagine others have similarly powerful conversions becoming atheists.
    That leads to an interesting distinction – even among believers, most have not experience a religious conversion.
    Dependent on the ‘religion’ to which one is converting, I think it is a tragedy that someone never experiences a conversion.

    • RR

      I would define a religious conversion as any significant shift in philosophical outlook, often accompanied by strong emotions. Even if those emotions are “why didn’t I see this before! It’s just so right!” and not of a specifically spiritual nature like “feeling at one with the universe”, I would say it is a religious conversion.

  • james wilson

    “How many atheists hold major public office?”

    We don’t know. The President of the United States shows how it can be done. It is undoubtedly done a great deal more.

    Romantic love and love of God are two things that, to ask for a comparison, require an ignorance of at least one.

  • Alex, species propagate just fine without romance.
    Robert and Kenny, yes there are religious conversions to Marxism, environmentalism and Ayn Rand. They may be higher status, but are still low status.
    Chris and Peter, we aren’t talking vague mild affection here; we’re talking head over heels in love.
    Alan, both religious and romantic ecstasy can sit awkwardly with formal institutions.

  • Eli

    I am sorry but I don’t see the basis on which romantic love and religious conversions are compared.

  • Ben A

    there are religious conversions to Marxism, environmentalism and Ayn Rand. They may be higher status, but are still low status.

    I think this may not fully capture the role of secular moral conversion or awakening as an acceptable modern form of religious conversion. Conversions to mainstream ethical doctrines (anti-racism, helping the poor, 3rd world aid, HIV/AIDs charities, e.g.) are very high status indeed. To take a trivial example, Hollywood actresses are already high status only *add* to their status by expressing an awakened moral awareness which is very close in structure to religious conversion. Of course, if you become a zealot, you become less clubbable. But Bono indubitably gains status from his role as an advocate for 3rd world debt forgiveness that’s even greater than he would have as (just!) a major rock star. And I have the impression that a sincere moral commitment (that stops short of zealotry) adds to status at all levels.

  • RR

    I think the two are similar in that they each result in a strong bond. Romantic love is a bond to an individual person. A religious conversion is a bond to a community. In both situations, you may do things that seem irrational to outside observers. Being head-over-heals in love with someone may cause you to brush off problems with you partner that would otherwise set off warning bells (i.e. doesn’t share you work ethic or views on money, can’t hold down a job, etc…). A religious conversion or enthusiasm can drive people to give their money and even their lives for religious leaders who do not have their best interests in mind.

    As Salem points out, we value individualism and the pursuit of happiness in our society. We see romantic love as escaping the strictures of tradition and allowing us to chose our own path, ignoring the fact that we may not be rational when doing so. A religious conversion implies that we are giving ourselves over to a set of beliefs and rules. We are hence giving up that individuality that we so prize, and sacrificing our own happiness for the supposed good of the society those rules apply to.

    I don’t agree with the idea that religion is somehow evolutionarily neutral or even negative. Religion is found in every human culture and, depending on what statistics you look at, some 80% of the world’s population adheres to one religion or another. This, to me, indicates that religion has been extremely valuable to the evolution of humanity. I get the sense that many people hope that religion is “just a phase” that humans will eventually grow out of. But I think it is too essential to our very nature for it ever to be abandoned completely. The philosophical details may change as the needs of society change, but religion in some form will always be with us.

  • George Weinberg

    I don’t see how anyone could believe that religious conversion experience could be a good think in and of itself. A conversion to the one true faith would be good, perhaps even miraculous, but a conversion to a false and heretical faith would be a dangerous delusion. To those who don’t believe in a one true faith (and I think it’s safe to assume that includes almost anyone here), it’s all delusion.

    Of course, love has also been defines as “the delusion that one woman differs from another”, but for now at least it’s a useful delusion. Arranged marriages (in the west at least) have been arranged by those old rivals of the state, the church and the family. The day may come when progressives favor arranged marriages, depending on who is doing the arranging.

    • RR

      And herein may lie part of the reason we see religious conversion as low status. People who have a religious awakening are usually experiencing problems in some aspect of their lives. It could be as extreme as an addiction that has wrecked their lives or as simple as not feeling fulfilled in the life they have built for themselves. High status individuals who have plenty of resources to get them through rough patches in their lives may see no need for a magical man in the sky to save them nor the community that revolves around Him (or Her). People who do not have such resources, however, may be more likely to find the idea of a better life after this one more appealing and the community support system inherent in organized religion more helpful than a well-off person would.

  • Miguel Madeira

    I think you are comparing apples and oranges.

    In the first point, you are talking about the dichotomy “romantic love vs. arranged marriage”.

    In the second, “religious conversion vs. life without religious feeling”

    But comparing these two dichotomy does not make sense.

    The religious equivalent of “romantic love vs. arranged marriage” is not “religious conversion vs. life without religious feeling”, is “religious conversion vs. following the traditional religion by default”.

    And the “relational” equivalent of “religious conversion vs. life without religious feeling” is not “romantic love vs. arranged marriage”., is “romantic love vs. being single”.

    And, looking things in these way, there are no contradiction:

    – Our modern sensibility thinks that “romantic love” is superior to “arranged marriages”, and usually also have more respect by religion-by-conversion (classic case: Hollywood stars converting to Buddhism) than by traditional religion

    – And the modern sensibility who has distrust by religion feeling is also much more open to being single than “ancient” sensibility.

  • RNG

    What percentage of the population will ever experience an “intense emotional religious conversion?” I would expect it to be a small percentage. Most people conform to the religion of their family or the area where they grew up, and consequently never have an “intense emotional religious conversion.” Others will select a religion without experiencing an “intense emotional” phase. Not many people will ever know what an “intense emotional religious conversion” feels like.

    In contrast, I would guess that most people at some point in their lives feel “an intense emotional romantic love” or a reasonable facsimile, such as an intense romantic crush. Almost everyone can relate to how that feels.

    So most people (not just cultural elites) will view an “intense emotional religious conversion” as something odd or with skepticism or with other strange/adverse reactions. They’ve never experienced it and it is not common. It is an unfamiliar event that they cannot relate to personally. A religious conversion is hard to sympathize with conceptually since its hard to even imagine oneself giving up one’s religion since you believe in it absolutely.

  • Becky

    reading the comments of those who have never been graced with religious awareness preen on an on about how stupid religion is and how much smarter they are to not “fall for it” reminds me so much of teenage boys talking about love. Sadly for many…whether it be love or religion, some will go through life and NEVER get it.

  • Sardondi

    “Yes, religious conversion can lead to false and destructive beliefs.” Whereupon each quickly clucks assent, chuckling in that kind way so as to say, ‘We’re all intelligent and rational adults’; and so unmistakably signals his or her freedom from such backward ideas as religious belief.

    I wonder why it is you did not say, rather, “Yes, the lack of religious conversion can lead to false and destructive beliefs.” It can, can it not?

    I would say your bias is showing. But then I remembered that your view is not “bias”; it’s “truth”.

  • We continue to see the emotional leakage when discussing religious matters, that some nonbelievers are simply unable to do so without resorting to insulting language. I always find that telling, and rather amusing.

    To the original point: I am not sure intense romantic feelings are all that high-status. People of all stations and classes seem to accept that a certain amount of romantic love will occur in many people around us, perhaps even ourselves, and especially between the ages of oh, 13-30. We see that it is pleasurable and gives folks a rather overdramatic, but generally benign, expansive attitude and sense of well-being – even if we don’t experience it ourselves. But we also see that it is not always benign, and lead people to make disastrous decisions. Among our rather self-styled elite classes (and the identification is trivially easy, cyan, though anyone who wants to make an issue of it can stonewall and think themselves clever indefinitely), there is often a sense of much to be gained of long-term benefit that can be thrown away for love, and I don’t think this is all that well-regarded.

    As for religion, Nicholas Wade passes on the speculation that it serves the group purpose of identifying the loyal – which is useful information to have when dealing with a world of amny groups and few enforcement mechanisms. You have to give something up, either in valuable sacrifice, rule-keeping, or self-denial. You weed out some of the unreliables that way. People can be hypocrites and mimic belief, of course, but even that costs something. Thus, people pursuing social status in a secular society would be intensely aware that this is a cost that might be wasted, or even distract them from status attainment. Religious observance, then, would be an indicator that the person would not be willing to make sacrifice for the other cause – secular attainment. These might not be trustworthy in the eyes of secular “religious” norms. Emotional conversions only highlight that “I have loyalties to some god other than status/attainment/trappings of learning.”

    Chris Hallquist. If you don’t find such as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, or NT Wright as examples of converts who don’t engage in “silly” behavior, I will have to suspect your definition of silly is going to flexibly include anything religious.

  • Dana H.

    I would hope that the different status of religious conversion and romantic love is comes from some understanding that while the latter can be rational, the former is inherently irrational. (By definition, belief in the supernatural is based on faith rather than reason.)

    Romantic love is love for a real person. Religious conversion is based on love for or devotion to something that does not exist.

    • Reasoner

      Your conviction / belief that religion* does not exist is just as valid as the man standing in the dark who shouts “There is no light!!”

      So I think that you are saying that you believe that a God does not exist.

      As you have no proof that this there is no God, your belief that there is not a God could just as readily be said to be silly, irrational, and worthy of arrogant dismissal, as you seem to convey towards those who engage in spiritual/religious pursuits.

      Your comments strike me as those of a zealous atheist? One can have “religious fervor” for whatever they believe in.

      If you carry such negative attribution towards others that if they do not believe as you do then they are somehow less worthy, then this stance would make you just as despicable as those you dismiss.

      *Religion is the organization of principles of belief Those who believe (only) in their religion are spiritual materialists, who mistake the frame for the substance.

  • Reasoner

    I have fallen, numerous times. For romance, for reason, and for religion. All were sublime experiences, ineffable if not unworldly.

    Each experience enriched my life immeasurably. Yet of them all, my religious experiences remain singularly memorable and significant.

    As one who was previously skeptical and cynical with regard to the existence of God and hostile to Christianity, my Zen-meditation-induced satori (enlightenment) has been the single-most important experience of my life.

    That I returned from my meditation with a startling conviction that Christ was present in my life not only threw my paradigm, but it started an inquiry into both the psychological origins of spirituality and the bastardization of organized religions as vehicles of power and control. And despite my spiritual awakening, it has taken me 40 years to open my intellect and my soul to what I now see as the profound veracity of the Bible, expressed through story and metaphor.

    I could never prescribe for another person the necessity of seeking a sense of a Higher Power.

    But a life without passion for seeking romance, reason, or religion is likely to be as desperate and barren as that of a zombie: truly walking through life as the living dead.

  • george

    Please…you cannot post a piece like this without at least acknowledging William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.” In this book, this subject has been comprehensively and expertly dealt with. By failing to point your audience to one of the greatest works of 19th C literature, you waste their time, and their short attention span.

    Do you think you thought these ideas up yourself? Or do you know about James, but thought your readers couldn’t “handle it.” Shame on you, which ever.

    “Romantic love vs conversion.” Oh please. If you are going to be a reader yourself, introduce your readership to your reading. Don’t dumb us all down.

  • Laika’s Last Woof

    Smoking crack is an emotional high few people will experience, but it is no tragedy to miss out on it. Sometimes we choose those things which are good for us over those which simply feel good.
    Science and learning have proven themselves to be some of our most valuable tools for survival and prosperity. Technology grants those who master it better odds for overcoming disease, famine, natural disaster, and war.
    There is also a long-term satisfaction that comes from belonging to a civilization that favors scientific enlightenment and achievement over the quick-fix high of religious ecstasy. We may have lost one of the favorite feel-good experiences of our more spiritual ancestors, but we have gained the pride of technological accomplishment and the ongoing fulfillment of our natural curiosity through scientific discovery.
    There are natural wonders to behold that humble us before their vastness. The intellectual experience is just so, cold and vast like the universe, your eye to the eyepiece apprehending billions of light-years as your mind, evolved from experiences far more primitive, somehow finds a way to make sense of it all.
    Contemplating the evaporation of a black hole may not compare spiritually to writhing on the ground from an intentionally inflicted snake bite, but neither can the latter compare intellectually to the former.

  • RadCap

    It is claimed that “intense emotional religious conversion” and “intense emotional romantic love” ” have much in common.” But these supposed commonalities are never identified in the post. It is a rational requirement to make such an identification in order to put forth any valid assertion about these claimed commonalities, let alone to draw a conclusion about them. Absent this necessary identification, one cannot assess the validity of the assertions nor the conclusions based upon them. They all remain arbitrary statements and thus outside the realm of cognition.

    What are the many things both supposedly have “in common”?

  • I think this is the most sustained comment thread I have ever read that, despite some strong differences of opinion, has remained both civil and on topic throughout. Amazing given that religion is one of the taboo topics! That said, like Reasoner above, the most important single experience of my life comes from meditation. While my experience of Romantic love was intensely emotional, I have to report that meditation lead to a changed inner experience of energy within my body – what is generally referred to as Kundilini experience. It is probably a different species of religious experience than a highly emotional conversion experience. It really was not at all emotional, and it has continued to be present for a year waxing and waning at times unlike the brief experiences of spiritual wonder that I would call satori – experiences that I also have had. So I would speculate that emotional religious conversion does have some features in common with falling head over heels in love, but that there are also kinds of mystical experiences that are not primarily emotional and have little in common with the experience of romantic love. This post makes me want to reread James The Varieties of Religious experience. I am also strongly reminded of the tradition of falling in love with the Shake in Sufism or Guru in Eastern traditions. Personally, I think living in a scientific age allows me to question my experience and hold it to a higher standard and not fall into mistaking my personal experience for universal truth while still respecting my own experience and giving credit to those who think me delusional.

  • Jordan

    Personally I view love on completely equal footing with lust – a sin that should be discouraged but cannot be completely stamped out (and one who claims to have stamped it out entirely should have an eye kept on them for mental instability).

    My parents are not big lovers and neither am I; I do not expect to experience romantic infatuation in my lifetime. As my mother described it (excuse the paraphrase; it’s not like I recorded her):

    I had been on lots of dates and I was never so totally comfortable being with anyone as I was with him. And I decided there in the car [as he drove] that I would be totally comfortable spending the rest of my life with him.

    Not very romantic; but perhaps that’s what romance is in the relative absence of baser and short-term-oriented human tendencies.