On converting to a religion for practical reasons

Considerations of religious issues in general

On converting to a religion for practical reasons

Postby Gavin » 20 May 2012, 12:14

I was just watching this BBC interview with Sacha Baron Cohen. Nice suit... but I don't like his humour any than Ricky Gervais', because it is at the expense of other - often well meaning - people. I think it's cruel. Sometimes moderately funny, but often quite childish. Strange, as he seems quite an intelligent man. If people would like to comment on this aspect then please do.

But I noticed that he married two years ago: his wife is Isla Fisher. I was reading this:

In order to marry Baron Cohen, Fisher converted to Judaism after three years of study and completed her conversion in early 2007, saying "I will definitely have a Jewish wedding just to be with Sacha. I would do anything – move into any religion – to be united in marriage with him. We have a future together, and religion comes second to love as far as we are concerned."[12] She took the Hebrew name Ayala (איילה), the Hebrew word for Doe,[13][14][15] and has described herself as keeping Shabbat.[16] Fisher and Baron Cohen have two daughters. Fisher has said that her "sensibility is Australian" and that she has a "laid-back attitude to life" that she feels "very Australian."

It always strikes me as absurd when people suddenly profess to believe things they did not previously believe, for practical reasons. It also strikes me as unpleasant that they should have to do so. "Religion comes second to love as far as we are concerned", his wife said. I cannot make any sense of this - don't bother converting, then.

Since we are talking about supernatural beliefs here, I do not see how somebody can decide to believe something because of some practical advantage, they can only pretend to do so. Belief is like a feeling: it comes on its own after exposure to evidence. Or, I suppose, for many people evidence has nothing to do with it, but only emotional satisfaction. I wonder if Isla (and Lauren Booth for that matter) actually believe in the tenets of their adopted religions, simply because it makes them feel better. I suppose they do. Let's hope this doesn't become the standard in a court of law.

We hear of this kind of sudden conversion happening a fair bit in the media - usually with regard to Islam. Come to think of it, we never seem to hear of it happening the other way around, whereby a person gives up their faith for a non-believer. Perhaps what happens is these people adopt the culture but never actually believe that Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse etc. I would be uncomfortable though, first of all switching to a culture that wasn't mine, and secondly pretending, even tacitly, to believe things I didn't believe. Well, love can do strange things to people.

p.s. It is interesting to note that Baron-Cohen was quick to mock the American Christian right, who showed him courtesy and kindness, in Borat, but apparently his wife must convert to his faith.
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Re: On converting to a religion for practical reasons

Postby Liviu » 20 May 2012, 15:37

These pragmatic conversions strike me too, every time I encounter one.
In Romania, which is about 85% Orthodox Christian, pragmatic conversion mean in most cases entering some neo-protestant church or Jehovah’s Witnesses community (or adhering to the relatively new to the scene Mormon Church).

For what I saw, apart from the “genuine” conversions (I guess there are some sincere ones, too), people are switching faith either to escape poverty (many such communities are simply buying their poor followers), or to succeed economically (entrepreneurial people who need business connections and support).

When I was a teacher I had a very intelligent, good humored and well mannered student about whom I was shocked to learn he was a Mormon. I felt too embarrassed to ask him how is it possible for an intelligent person to believe such preposterous and ridiculous claims as those made by his church. His father was a successful businessman, and the only explanation I came with it was that it did it for the connections.

There are also conversions to Islam for women marring Muslim men. In their cases I find very annoying the new found pride with which they cover their heads.

In general, I find the vast majority of people to be very pragmatic, regardless of their faith. To put it simply, they are in it in order to get something from God. Apart from the ones that feel the end is near (and make plans for the afterlife), the others want solutions for their problems: more money, health, happy marriages and so on. There is not much “spirituality” involved, and most don’t have any problems with that.

To make things worse, the current Orthodox Church hierarchy seems to fully embrace this pragmatism. Two or three years ago I heard the new Patriarch saying to the congregation at the Easter liturgy something like this: “Those who leave early will receive one egg; those who will stay until the end will get two eggs and a cake.” (live on national television).

Speaking of Baron-Cohen, I find it despicable to mock other’s religion the way he does, while asking his wife to convert to Judaism.

P.S. I must say that I encountered real good people in the Orthodox Church. I do not want to say all priests are like that.
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Re: On converting to a religion for practical reasons

Postby Caleb » 21 May 2012, 02:59

Yeah, it doesn't make sense to me either. The only example I can think of regarding this in Australia was a friend I hadn't seen for many years. I ran into literally a week before I left Australia. She was Malaysian Chinese in origin, but she had married a Turkish guy. I didn't ask her about Islam (I wasn't that interested at the time and we had other things to catch up on), so I wonder what the deal was. She wasn't wearing a headscarf. However, they had a son. I find it very hard to believe that even the most liberal/cosmopolitan Turk wouldn't have had his parents leaning on him about his son, if not his wife. Maybe all was well though.

However, the point about neo-Protestantism really rings true in Taiwan. Firstly, a lot of the aboriginal people here (a significant minority where I live) were actually converted to Christianity by a Canadian missionary in the nineteenth century, so there are some oldish Christian churches here. However, the place is crawling with missionaries. Jon Huntsman, who was a Republican presidential candidate this year, was a Mormon missionary to Taiwan. I see them relatively frequently, and when I lived in another part of the country, there was a Mormon church near my house (and every Wednesday afternoon, they used to stand on a busy intersection with a sign advertising "free English lessons", which I thought was highly disingenuous). I used to work with several people here who had basically come to do missionary work, but were employed as teachers for visa purposes (actually, now that I think of it, the majority of people I've worked with have been American, and the majority of those have been pretty eager to talk about their Christianity with people, if not been outright missionaries). I also encounter plenty of Taiwanese trying to convert people and it's actually surprising just how many (Taiwanese) Christians I encounter here. It's big in Korea too, apparently, and I don't think this is a coincidence as these kinds of religious organisations aren't stupid. They go where the money is. I bet they send more missionaries here than say, Cambodia, assuming they have equal permission by the respective governments. Interestingly, Taiwanese actually have a different word for Christians and Catholics, which I think is the direct result of these missionaries (I had a few absurd conversations with former colleagues who were adament that Catholics are not Christians).

Yet it all seems really weird to me that people would buy into Christian mythology. To some extent, I can understand that if you're brought up in a particular religion you will believe in certain things because you were exposed to them at a pre-rational time in your life, but I just don't know how people can accept a new mythology.

I am sure a lot of guys do it for networking (and interestingly, organisations such as Rotary are big here amongst professionals and the aspirational), but I still haven't quite figured out the extent to which they really believe it. I think a lot actually do, based upon the encounters I've had with Taiwanese Christians here.
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Re: On converting to a religion for practical reasons

Postby Rachel » 21 May 2012, 19:02

Reading between the lines of that Baron Cohen article, I am certain his wife converted by the Reform or Conservative branch of Judaism.

Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism are not recognised by many Jews as a "real" conversion.
The Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism only started up about 170 years ago. They basically broke off from mainstream Orthodox Judaism to be less religious and to "modernise". The earliest Reform Synagogues were even made up to look like churches. Reform and Conservative Jewish conversions are sometimes not recognised as "proper" conversions even by Traditional or very loosely affiliated Jews. The "3 year course" she took to convert could be just half an hour a week learning about another religion. Therefore it doesn't mean anything.

My favourite quickie Jewish Reform "conversion" was Marilyn Monroe during her marriage to Arthur Miller. :) I rather like Marilyn Monroe whatever religion she was.

Liviu, I am very surprised to learn that there are Jehovah's witnesses in Romania and that Mormons have also arrived there.
I agree with what you and everyone here says about Baron Cohen.
I don't find him funny either.
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Re: On converting to a religion for practical reasons

Postby Liviu » 21 May 2012, 20:48

Rachel: very interesting informations, I didn't knew anything about it.
I don’t know how many Jehovah’s witnesses are in Romania (several tens of thousands, probably), but they are widespread. There are relatively few Mormons, but their neatly dressed missionaries could also be found almost everywhere (in the cities, at least).

I know a small village in Transylvania of about 300 souls (my fiancée’s mother is from that village) that already hosts two or three neo-protestant small communities and at least one Jehovah’s witness :)

I will rant a little about this village because I found its fate characteristic for our time. It was founded by Saxon colonists some 800 years ago. In the last 200 years, ethnic Romanians were allowed to settle there (from medieval times Romanians were discriminated against in Transylvania, not allowed to mix with Saxons or Hungarians, I will not discuss the details here). In 1900 the population was probably 50% Saxon, 50% Romanian.
After the fall of communism, in the early 1990s the Saxons migrated en masse in Germany, their place to be taken by Gypsies. Many Romanians also left the village. The population is now 25% Romanians and 75% Gypsies (Romanians sometimes joke and call the Gypsies “Saxons”, because the Saxons were the other community of the village). 90% or more of all children are Gypsies.
There are only 4 or 5 Saxons left. The Lutheran church (built in the 1200s) has fallen into disrepair.
The Gypsy population is relatively peaceful (unlike other areas), but generally uncivilized: garbage is thrown everywhere, theft is common, children are not going to school etc.
This state of affaires defines all former Saxon areas in Transylvania, and many (former) Romanian villages in the entire country.
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Re: On converting to a religion for practical reasons

Postby Rachel » 24 May 2012, 13:20

Thank you for writing Liviu,
That description of Translyvania and it's history was very interesting for me. I knew nothing about it.

Recently here in Israel my Dad was chatting to an old Israeli who was of Romanian Jewish origin. I know very little of Romania and have never visited, but this Romanian man had visited the country a lot to see his childhood home. He mentioned a town in Romanian Moldavia and said that the population had changed completely since the early 1990's and now had a large Gypsy population. He then thought a bit and said: "...it is like that in many places there now."
I did not know what he was talking about at the time. Now I understand after reading your post.

I don't know much about Gypsys. I don't think I have ever met someone from their community because I grew up in a bit of Britain where there were not many minorities in the 1980's - before Tony Blair's EU immigration policies came in. Then I moved to Israel and in Israel the Gypsy population is miniscule, very very tiny.

I read somewhere that central European Gypsys have a tradition of marrying as young teenagers and have a large birthrate. I assume that ordinary Romanians have the same (low) birthrate as all European countries. Maybe that is why the demographics in some places in Romania are changing.

I suppose I should get back on topic. Thanks for your fascinating "rant". I enjoyed reading it.
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Re: On converting to a religion for practical reasons

Postby Elliott » 08 Jun 2013, 14:54

I'm posting this here just because the person concerned (Lauren Booth) was previously mentioned in this thread. It's just a newspaper article about her and her Muslim husband. I'll admit, I'm posting it mainly because it includes this bizarre and rather funny image of the couple:

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Re: On converting to a religion for practical reasons

Postby Jonathan » 09 Jun 2013, 09:26

Gavin wrote:It always strikes me as absurd when people suddenly profess to believe things they did not previously believe, for practical reasons.

There are different varieties of religious experience. On one end of the spectrum is an intense, personal faith. It is in this context that a practical conversion makes no sense. However, there is another end of the spectrum, in which the religious experience consists primarily of being part of a community, and the degree of personal faith is a private matter. In this context, converting is sort of like joining a tribe with a few strange rituals, which you perform dutifully.

Abraham may be taken as the archetype of a faith-based conversion; Ruth is the archetype of the community-based conversion (Ruth 1:16-17):
16 And Ruth said: 'Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God;
17 where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the LORD do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.'

Gavin wrote:but apparently his wife must convert to his faith.

There is an explanation for this which may not be immediately obvious. Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish, and this has some meaning to him, to the extent that he has visited his family in Israel (on a kibbutz) and has learned to speak Hebrew (all of his 'Kazakh' dialog in Borat was actually Hebrew, to the delight of Israeli viewers). He hopes for children from his marriage, and he hopes that his children will also be part of the Jewish people. At the very least, he wants to open that door for them, and hopes they'll walk through it.

Now it so happens that Jewish law defines a Jew as one whose Mother is a Jew, or who was converted properly. Note: 'Mother', not 'Parents', not 'Father'. So if he marries a Christian girl, he puts his children in a position where the will have to be converted properly to be considered Jewish. This requires far more than just being baptised - it involves much study, an examination, and some proof that Jewish law is being followed at home.

Since he wishes to spare them the need for this, he asks his wife to do it instead. As Rachel said, they probably compromised on a Reform conversion, which is not as demanding as an Orthodox one. This is probably a headache for him as well as for her - he doesn't strike me as the type who keeps the Sabbath zealously, for example. In any case, it's not Sacha's ego or hypocrisy which is driving this - you can be fairly sure that if he had been the woman and she the man, the subject would not have come up.

I hope that clarified more than it confused.

We hear of this kind of sudden conversion happening a fair bit in the media - usually with regard to Islam.

I suspect that male conversions to Islam tend to be an act of personal faith, whereas female conversions are an act of community - to be with a man. For example, the wife of one of the Boston Bombers vs. the Woolwich murderers. Two examples do not make a proof, of course - but perhaps someone else has found some research on the subject.
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