I originally submitted this to Cracked. They never got back to me, so I’m assuming they didn’t go with it. They have strict rules regarding the subject matter…
Maybe you’re not religious. Or maybe you are. Let’s imagine for now that you are, but something about your religion – besides the wine and wafers – just isn’t sitting right. Maybe your questions about texts haven’t been answered to your satisfaction, or your minister likes the wrong football team, or you have reservations about that part of the service where your heart gets ripped out. Now, imagine you’ve put your soul into the religion market and found a buyer, and are ready to make the conversion to this new faith which corrects everything you hated about your old religion.
I have a little bit of experience doing this. At a point in my lifetime, I leapt from a religion I grew up following to a religion which was more resonant to me. Like most things in life, though, there were a few odd side effects of it which no one told me about, and I didn’t see coming. So before you put on the robe and shave your head, you might want to be aware of the following reasons why the divine light you’re envisioning might be the lamp of an oncoming train.
You’ll Try to Convert Everyone
You know those people who annoy you because they feel the need to tell everyone how awesome their religion is? Not necessarily evangelizing, mind you, but they just want to tell the world how cool it is to be them. When you first switch your religion, that’s you. Basically, you’re going to be that pothead who uses every excuse he can to tell you why pot should be legalized, except this time there isn’t going to be a legion of people who think the same thing. You’ll be trying to pimp your awesome new faith in every conversation you get into, no matter what the topic. Someone discussing who would win, Batman or Teddy Roosevelt? The winner is going to be your new god or prophet of choice. Duh!
While we know your newfound conversion is a real party for you, others aren’t going to share your feelings, and soon after the conversion ceremony – maybe like an hour or so, tops – they’re going to start getting fed up with your blatant attempts to bait them. When they start conveniently forgetting to send you the party invitations, there’s no shortage of heathens to turn to, and you’re suddenly going to be talking the theological talk to clerks, waiters, and that crazy homeless guy who wears his pants on his head. And those people don’t have the social protocols your friends and family have that prevents them from repeatedly punching you in the face screaming “WHERE’S YOUR GOD NOW?”
You don’t need any of them, though, because you’re making plenty of new friends in your brand new congregation! Right?
Your Congregation Expects You to Follow Their Version of Your Religion
Unless your potential new religion practices the ancient art of sadism, the first thing that will strike you upon your conversion is the love-bombing. Across all religions on the planet, this is one aspect that’s pretty universal. Love, peace, respect for life, and all those nice little things that make life worth living outnumber machete slaughter religions by a really, really big ratio. And if the people in your new congregation are any good at practicing the “be nice” messages, they’ll love you before the conversion ceremony. Hell, they’ll love you the second you make your first visit to the worship house as their guest.
The problem with changing your religion, though, is that to everyone who is a frequent visitor at your new religious temple, you’re just the n00b. Since you don’t have the years of practice behind you that most of them do, you don’t know anything. This is going to apply whether you converted after reading every book ever written on your new religion or you simply walked into the religious gathering place looking for directions to the local brothel. Even if your congregation is incorporating ceremonies into its services which clearly go against one of the religion’s main beliefs, you’re always the one who’s wrong.
Your fellow congregants are going to expect you to be on their side of every issue, political or religious, and it doesn’t matter how much evidence they have to support their views. If you have the audacity to even consider an opposing viewpoint, be prepared for a good, long lecture about how wrong the other guys are. It can boil down to one of the little religious differences that splits everyone into sects, or it can be political – one of my most vivid memories from my adopted religion is receiving the mother of all anti-gay rants after having the gall to express my political belief that gays should be treated like human beings.
Of course, this isn’t such a huge problem for converts to mainline religions. If one congregation decides you don’t follow your religion the right way, you just keep going until you find the congregation that thinks you do. It’s a wee bit more problematic for those who convert to less popular or understood religions – like I did – whose followers are well aware of the fact that they are frequently the only game in town. It’s their way or the highway, and if it’s the highway, you could be stuck without anyone to teach you the basic practices and rituals.
You’ll be Presented as The Convert
Whether or not they like you, there’s a reason your fellow congregants want you to sit down and shut up: You make a better spokesperson if you do. If you convert to a non-mainstream faith which is misunderstood and needs to hold occasional getting-to-know-you rallies to show everyone how they don’t actually demand firstborn sacrifice, you’re suddenly slipping into the role of the happy man who saw the light. In layman’s terms, you’re the mascot.
Being a good follower of a religion you weren’t raised practicing puts a real emphasis on that word, “follower.” Around people who don’t know anything about your new religion, you’re the guy who everyone will point to as a sterling example of a believer, because you made a choice to follow your new religion. If you say challenging or confrontational things about aspects of your religion that you haven’t been able to come to terms with, it’s easy for the other congregants to shrug you off. You’re just the brand new convert, after all, and you don’t know everything yet. Or you don’t understand what you know.
In extreme cases – like evangelical religions – you’re basically supposed to act the role of a salesperson. You’re saved now, right? And don’t you want everyone else you know to be able to share in your heavenly bounty? Sure, maybe you really did convert because you decided the promise of a nice afterlife was only available to the guys next door, but I can guarantee no one switches religions because the aspect of bugging the heathens appeals to their sense of morality. Unfortunately, lifelong followers of evangelical religions all seem to think an ex-unbeliever’s lost-soul-found-soul story is a dynamic sales pitch.
You Won’t Learn About the Small Rules Until After Conversion (and you’ll try to adhere to them, and they’ll make you crazy)
You may already know that Hinduism is a major world religion with over 900 million followers, and that Hindus hold cows in very high regard. You might not know that Hindus make a major deal out of getting their ears pierced. They have a big party called Karnavedha where they shove a thorn through someone’s ear and ease the pain by spreading hot butter across it. Taoists seek harmony with nature by taking the occasional aimless walk.
Religions love to dish out reward, punishment, karma, and whathaveyou. They love doing it so much that each one has an endless list of regulations and approved practices for everything from prayer absolution to shoelace tying. There are so many that following them all is impossible, and not all of them are culturally savory – even the strictest members of the congregation put fingers to ears and yell “lalala I can’t hear you!” when you mention the less popular ones. Some of them can’t be followed because new discoveries and thoughts have been made through time. Others have been wiped out because local laws decided they weren’t humane enough. Some actually contradict other laws in the scriptures. But none of that is enough to stop you from trying to follow them all.
This really isn’t your fault. The thing about religious converts is that they tend to be sincere about their practices, at least if they’re not converting for familial reasons. The little rules that tell you how to practice, no matter how strange they sound, are among the things that make your religion a way of life for its followers. More importantly, if a religion is afterlife-based, heaven’s landlords will love you for doing what they like and hate you for doing what they hate, and since you’re bent on them liking you, who are you to argue? It’s exactly why Cat Stevens quit music and didn’t denounce the Ayatollah’s fatwa on Salman Rushdie after becoming a Muslim – it’s possible he just didn’t know any better. If the scriptures say thou shalt suck alcohol through nose straws, you’re not going to think twice about shoving those fast food bendy straws right into your schnozz.
Some of these rules tend to get obsessively minute. They’ll give you commands about thoughts, bathroom behavior, pet ownership, and which side to sleep on. After my conversion, I frequently ate right-handed despite not only being a lefty, but having a deformed right arm which has trouble pulling off certain day-to-day duties. Eventually, there comes a point where you have to trust your god, your universe, or whatever higher power you believe in is forgiving enough to let your reward actions cancel out your sin actions. If they’re not, you’ll be in for an obsessively crazy life as well as an unpleasant afterlife.
People You Know Won’t Get Over Their Stereotypes
Stereotypes, for better and worse, are a fact of life. There are stereotypes for everything – race, body type, kind of sex partner, the list just goes on. So you better believe there are stereotypes to attribute to those of faith! Everyone knows that if you become a Pagan, you have to spend copious amounts of time explaining to your neighbor that you do not, in fact, worship the devil. If you’re a Confucian, you have to tell everyone that you don’t actually worship (or even necessarily believe in) a god. If you turn to Sikhism, it’s time to prepare those lectures about how you’re not a Muslim, and if you’re a Muslim, you have to assure your neighbors that you’re not planning to blow up their houses.
It’s a free country, so you’re free to follow whatever religion you want and tell your peers all the great things about your faith. Then they’ll be free to ignore everything you say and insist to everyone that you’ve joined the religious psycho squad. What about the children?!
Yeah, people in general just aren’t the learning sort. Be prepared to face the evil eye a lot if you’re not involved with a mainstream religion. After all, learning lessons involves going out and, you know, learning and expanding your mind. Who wants to do a silly thing like that when you can just place a person you’ve known and trusted for years into a mental “us against them” compartment under the “them” section?
There are conversion stories written by people who have even been disowned by their own families. I was lucky in that my own family – who raised me practicing a mainstream religion – was really cool about my conversion. My mother even says that it was a learning opportunity for her which she wouldn’t change. The rest of my neighborhood, well, let’s just say they didn’t share that same outlook.
You Won’t Stop Thinking Up New Questions
So okay, you’ve taken the eternal sacred vows of your new religion, and you know the practices now. You’re finding good and decent folk over at the local worshipping hole, and they don’t seem to mind your holdover heathen characteristics. You’re surviving all of the initial conversion waves and everything looks bright as the divine light for a long and productive stay in your new soul home, and possibly its afterlife.
Then one day, as you’re about to step into the artificial lightning machine for a ceremony, you hear a familiar soft whisper: “Psst, hey kiddo, something’s not right about this, and you know it!” That would be the manic raving of your conscience, here to spoil the party again. It’s not very comfortable following this Nikola Tesla religion, which is odd, because it’s the thing that talked you into giving it a shot in the first place.
If you’re converting to a new religion because you had problems with your old one, chances are you started listening to those voices in your head saying your old religion wasn’t working out and that you needed to break up with it. When you set sail toward the religious horizon, you’re doing it to get those voices to shut up. Inner peace or the search for a greater spiritual plane and anything else is basically a side effect to that; will a new religion answer questions about your old religion in an acceptable way? Despite the obvious logic failure in play here, you can’t help it because if you were raised in your old religion, it’s the only guiding philosophy you’re familiar with.
After conversion, everything will be great for awhile. Then people from your new congregation will start showing their human sides, scriptures will be bickered over, and sometimes people will start preaching values which go against what they were saying back when you were just a religion shopper. Scriptures will raise questions not answered to your satisfaction. The minister will be a fan of the wrong hockey team. You’ll have reservations about the part of the service where you stick your hand in a cage with an angry cobra. You’ve now gone full circle, and are right back where you started. Yes, there are plenty of people who find happiness and fulfillment in the religions they converted to, and some religions don’t make such taxing demands. But before you commit your eternity to a brand new religion, be sure you can weather out a few waves of doubt, or you’ll learn that eternity’s timespan is surprisingly limited.