Losing my religion (or gaining a new one): This is what's surprising about conversions in America

The best stories contain surprising twists.

I already was fascinated with "Convert Nation," an interview piece by Emma Green in The Atlantic.

But then Green served up not one but two satisfying twists — and before the story barely got started.

Let's start with the first two paragraphs:

Jane Picken didn’t know much about religion growing up. Her parents were Christians, but she was orphaned at a young age, and the person who helped raise her “utterly rejected” revealed religion. Years later, when she met Abraham Cohen at a party, they really hit it off—they were engaged within three weeks. But first, they had a religion problem to fix.
Cohen was the son of a cantor, or worship leader, at a Philadelphia synagogue. His father wasn’t comfortable with him marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. At first, Cohen didn’t want to push his faith on his fiancée, but Jane really loved Jewish rituals like lighting Shabbat candles and eating with family on Friday nights. She decided to convert, taking the name Sarah.

That anecdotal lede seems pretty standard for an article with a subtitle pointing to one-third of Americans identifying with a religion different from the one with which they grew up.

But then the third paragraph slaps you in the face and declares, "Hey, this scenario isn't as simple as it first appeared":

A few years later, Sarah got very sick. As friends and doctors gathered around her, assuming she was dying, she had a vision of Jesus. This was what real conversion felt like, she thought; it was so much deeper and more heartfelt than her earlier turn to Judaism. The Cohens tried to make it work, but they fought over keeping her faith a secret and how to raise their kids. Eventually, they split. One of their daughters went to live with Abraham as a Jew, while the other two followed their mother as Christians.


While the reader is still coming to grips with that unexpected turn, the fourth paragraph delivers another one:

The thing is, Sarah Jane and Abraham Cohen first met in 1806. They separated in 1831 after one of their sons died of scarlet fever. While their story has a certain 19th-century flavor to it, the same thing might have happened to any couple currently on the dating scene. Perhaps it would be comforting to Sarah Jane and Abraham to know that their descendants are likely facing the same questions and having the same fights as they did, 200 years later.

There you go.

Green certainly hooked me. 

The source for the stat on Americans changing religions is the Pew Research Center. I wondered if the figure includes switching among various Christian denominations. Here is what Pew says:

Religious switching is a common occurrence in the U.S. Depending on how “religious switching” is defined, as many as 42% of U.S. adults have switched religions. That definition counts switching between Protestant traditions, but even if Protestantism is regarded as a single group, about a third of Americans (34%) identify with a different religious group than the one in which they were raised.

Keep reading, and The Atlantic article features a Q&A with Lincoln Mullen, an assistant professor of history at George Mason University and author of the new book "The Chance of Salvation."

It's certainly an interesting interview, even if the end can't quite top the big twists at the beginning. 

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