Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
About usFaculty of Theology and Religious StudiesResearchCRCG
Header image The Religion Factor

Understanding Concepts of Conversion in Their Context

Date:01 April 2013
Understanding Concepts of Conversion in Their Context
Understanding Concepts of Conversion in Their Context

In today’s post, Albertina Oegema reflects on the conversion of former Partij voor de Vrijheid member Arnoud van Doorn to Islam, based on her research on the thoughts of Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria on conversion.

Several recent news items have drawn attention to the fact that Arnoud van Doorn, a former member of the Dutch anti-Islam party Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) and a municipality councillor in The Hague, converted to Islam (1). On 27 February, van Doorn posted the Arabic text of the Muslim profession of faith together with “nieuwe start” (“new start”) on his twitter account (2). The newsworthiness of this conversion is, of course, the apparent contradiction between van Doorn’s former subscription to the PVV program and his new persuasion.

Van Doorn’s characterization of his conversion as a “new start” provides an example of how modern Western concepts of conversion may differ from those in other historical, social, and political contexts. Religion, culture, period, place, and even one’s own life story influence the way conversions are expressed and interpreted (3). Given these differences in expressing and understanding conversion, the methodological question has to be raised of whether any conversion anywhere can be approached similarly (4). Shouldn’t the contextual influence on the conceptualization of conversion be taken into account first before it comes to the analysis of a conversion experience as such?

The contextual influence on the conceptualization of conversion can best be illustrated by contrasting van Doorn’s “new start” with a concept of conversion from a different time and period. A case in point is the work of  Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (ca. 15 bce-50 ce). He understands conversion within a framework of ethical nobility. In his writing On Virtues, Philo argues against those Jews who hold that nobility entails descent from virtuous (i.e., Jewish) ancestors (“genealogical” nobility). In Philo’s opinion, nobility refers to one’s own moral excellence (“ethical” nobility) (5). Thus, for Philo, conversion was not about a new start but rather ethical elevation: it enables non-Jews to become ethically noble. The result of this conversion is that they, despite their (genealogically ignoble) non-Jewish descent, may enter into the Jewish polity (6).

Philo’s view on nobility relates to a wider debate in Graeco-Roman Antiquity on the meaning and value of nobility in comparison with virtue. A particular dimension of this debate focused on the true meaning of nobility, whether nobility had to be defined genealogically or ethically (7). It turns out that other authors—philosophers as well as orators and historians—arrived at the same conclusion as Philo did. They also argued that true nobility entails moral excellence, irrespective of one’s ancestry (8).

This wider debate on nobility may have been suitable for Philo as a framework for his concept of conversion for two reasons. First, like Philo’s concept of conversion, the Graeco-Roman notion of nobility could imply change, or, more generally, further development (9). Secondly, as in Philo’s On Virtues, Graeco-Roman nobility discussions can be found in the context of debates on the issue of admitting foreigners to a (genealogically) noble nation or polity (10). In this way, ethical nobility could explain to Philo the possibility of conversion for non-Jews and their entrance into the Jewish polity.

The example of Philo shows us that conversions are expressed and interpreted in relation to their contexts. Philo did not understand conversion as a “new start,” as van Doorn does. Rather, Graeco-Roman nobility discussions made him conceptualize conversion within a framework of ethical nobility. Similarly, I would suggest that a contextual approach is necessary for developing a comprehensive, nuanced understanding of all concepts of conversion, including that of van Doorn. In van Doorn’s case, this understanding could be attained by a study of the place van Doorn’s “new start” holds within the context of the use of “new start” in the modern West in general. In addition, it can be asked to what extent his “new start” is influenced by the passive Christian, so-called “Pauline” model of conversion (11) and how it may have been affected by Western individualism and possibly even by the way Islam is presented in PVV rhetoric.

As noted before, this contextual influence on the expression and understanding of conversion raises the methodological question of whether all conversion can be approached similarly. It can be doubted, for example, whether a convert in Philo’s framework of “ethical nobility” would pass through the very same stages of conversion as in van Doorn’s “new start.” Would a stage model of conversion then explain all conversion experiences or only those in a particular context? (12) Would this mean, by analogy, that any approach to or model of conversion is developed in the context of a certain concept of conversion and based upon studies of conversions within that context? If so, given the contextual influence on expressing and understanding conversions, to what extent would it be possible to apply these approaches and models to conversions in different contexts?

Albertina Oegema is a master student in the Research Master Religion and Culture at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies in Groningen. Her current research interest is understanding concepts of conversion from Antiquity in their religious and cultural context.

(1) Various news items on this topic are collected at the website of Debat in de Digitale Hofstad: J. de Wandelaar, “Ex-PVV’er Arnoud van Doorn bekeerd tot de Islam ????,” Debat in de Digitale Hofstad 28 February 2013. Available at gemeenteraadslid-ex-pvver-arnoud-van-doorn-bekeerd-tot-de-islam/Accessed 2 March 2013. An interview of Arnoud van Doorn with Al Jazeera can be found at, an English translation at 00160/photo/1 Accessed 6 March 2013.

(2) Accessed 2 March 2013.

(3) Cf. H. Zock, ‘Paradigms in Psychological Conversion Research: Between Social Science and Literary Analysis,’ in: J. N. Bremmer, W. J. van Bekkum, and A. L. Molendijk, eds. Paradigms, Poetics and Politics of Conversion. Groningen Studies in Cultural Change 19. Leuven: Peeters (2006), pp53-58.

(4) For a nice schematic, albeit dated, overview of various approaches to the study of conversion, cf. B. Kilbourne and J. T. Richardson, ‘Paradigm Conflict, Types of Conversion, and Conversion Theories’ Sociological Analysis 50 (1989), pp1-21.

(5) This is emphasized throughout the section “On Nobility” in On Virtues (Virt. 187-227).

(6) Cf. Virt. 175-186, 212-222a.

(7) Cf. Dio Chrysostom, 2 Serv. lib. 29-32; Diogenes Laertius, Vit. phil.3.88-89 (Plato); 6.10 (Antisthenes); Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. rom. 3.11.5; Seneca, Ep. 44. Cf. also the treatises on nobility which some Graeco-Roman philosophers wrote—or, more probable—were credited to have written: Aristotle (Plutarch, Arist. 27.2; Athenaeus, Deipn. 555d-556a; Diogenes Laertius Vit. phil. 5.22; Stobaeus, Flor.86.24, 25; 88.13), Metrodorus (Diogenes Laertius, Vit. phil. 10.1, 24), Diogenes of Babylon (Athenaeus (Deipn. 4.168f), and Plutarch (Stobaeus, Flor. 4.29.21, 22, 51).

(8) Cf. Dio Chrysostom, 2 Serv. lib. 29-32; Diogenes Laertius, Vit. phil.3.88-89 (Plato); 6.10 (Antisthenes); Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. rom. 3.10.5; Seneca, Ep. 44.

(9) Cf., for a change from ethical ignobility to ethical nobility, esp. Seneca, Ep. 44. Cf., for a further development of inherited genealogical or inbred ethical nobility, esp. those passages stressing the importance of proper education, instruction, or exercise: Diogenes Laertius, Vit. phil. 7.8 (Zeno); Epictetus, Diss. Arr. dig. 2.20.34; Plato, Pol. 310a; Resp.375a.

(10) In the context of the Greeks or Athens: Aristides, Pan. Or. 26 (Or. 1); Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. rom. 2.17.1; Isocrates, De pace 50 (Or.8); Plato, Menex. 237b (cf. 245d); Plutarch, Nic. 2.1. In the context of Rome and Alba Longa: Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. rom. 3.11.3, 5.

(11) Based upon an interpretation of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-18). Among other things, this model interprets conversion as a change brought about by an active agent (i.e., God) not under the convert’s control. Cf. J. T. Richardson, ‘The Active vs. Passive Convert: Paradigm Conflict in Conversion/Recruitment Research” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 24 (1985), pp164-166.

(12) Cf. Rambo’s stage model of conversion (context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment, consequences). See L.R. Rambo, ‘The Psychology of Conversion,’ in: H. Newton Malony and S. Southard, eds. Handbook of Religious Conversion. Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press (1992), pp159-177.


Loading comments...