New Israeli Database Aims to Unveil the Secret of Why People Undergo Religious Conversions

Whether coerced by strict regimes or coaxed by love, there have always been those to switch from one religion to another. Researchers at Ben Gurion University are compiling complete database of every known conversion in history to better understand the reasons why.

Danna Harman
Danna Harman
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Danna Harman
Danna Harman

Faith? Love and marriage? Economic or political considerations? Coercion? For as long as there have been different religions around, says Chaim Hames, chair of the history department at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, there have been those who — for whatever reason — have sought to switch from one to another.

There are Jews asking to be baptized, Muslims wanting to take communion, and Christians getting Bar Mitzvah tutors or learning the shahadah down at the local Mosque. There are, of course, also Protestants becoming Catholics, Sunnis becoming Shiites, and reform Jews becoming ultra-Orthodox — not to mention Hare Krishnas becoming Baha’i, Animists becoming Hindi, and Wiccans signing up for Quaker sessions.

And now, for the first time, under Hames’ guidance, a database is being created that will attempt to record every known instance of conversion from one religion to another. Well, almost: The database, which is the centerpiece of a new center launched Thursday at BGU, will record all known conversions between the three monotheistic religions during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period.

More broadly, the database will hopefully serve, says Hames, as a resource for anyone interested in general questions of religious community, identity and belonging — past, present and future.

“Conversion from one religion to another is a significant moment, not only for the person converting, but also for the religious community abandoned and the one adopted,” says Hames, a professor of medieval history, who got into the academic conversion business, so to speak, while doing his Ph.D. at Cambridge University. There, his thesis focused on the life of a 13th-century Catalan Christian philosopher, writer and mystic Ramon Llull, who believed he had found a reason-based system for converting all infidels to Christianity.

What Hames found then, as in his subsequent work on conversions, was that while there is a lot of individual research on conversion in academia, the collective evidence is often fragmentary. “We use whatever sources we can each find. We don’t have any qualitative or quantitative data,” says Hames.

The data available to scholars, he continues, typically comes from manuscripts scattered around the world, in, say, churches or royal archives, or is gleaned from literary or court documents. The idea behind the creation of the database is to create as large a pool as possible of these historical materials and records on conversions.

The plan is for members of the new center, along with the active input of an international group of scholars, to collect, digitalize, translated into English, organize, and make available all these separate findings — as part of a new digital library. The end result, Hames explains, will be a fully searchable online reference tool which can then be used by anthropologists, historians, sociologists and anyone else interested — to compare and relate to a wide range of issues dealing with conversion.

“The immediate and major contribution of the database will be in allowing us to learn more about the socio-economic status of the converts: their professions, their educational and cultural backgrounds,” says Hames. Historians will be able to look at patters of individual and community conversions — and research such questions as, say, whether gender is a factor in conversion; whether more people convert in an urban setting or in the countryside; and how familial ties and relations between proselytes and their previous co-religionists fit into the picture.

While the sheer magnitude of material available about conversions in the present era (think everything from interior ministry records to Facebook updates) means the database will not even aim to include modern-day conversions, Hames is convinced that understanding the trends of the past will also give insight into the world of conversions today.

“The questions we ask today are similar to those we have always asked. For example, what communities do people want to belong to? How to they decide? And what motivates someone to change from one community to the next?” asks Hames. “I don’t think we will come up with anything that will give a clear indication of why people convert. But we will be able to paint a far broader picture that will allow us to formulate better questions about the motivations.”

The new center is part of the government-funded Israeli Centers of Research Excellence program, or I-CORE, an initiative designed to promote and strengthen academic research in a range of fields, and will be funded, for the first five years, primarily through the Council for Higher Education.

The team involved with the center will include, along with Hames, several other BGU academics: Dr. Ephraim (Effie) Shoham-Steiner of the Department of Jewish History, Prof. Daniel Lasker and Dr. Avraham Reiner of the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought, Prof. Yair Neuman, the chair of the Department of Education, and Dr. Nimrod Hurwitz of the Department of Middle East Studies. Also part of the project are Dr. Ram Ben Shalom from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Dov Stuczynski from Bar-Ilan University.

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