The Youth-Crisis Model of Conversion: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed?

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Initially formulated in the 1970s when large numbers of former counterculturists were joining alternative religions, the youth-crisis model of conversion posited that new recruits were predominantly young people whose involvement could be explained as a function of their youth (e.g., as an adolescent developmental crisis). The present study presents statistics on recruits to seven different contemporary new religions that fundamentally challenge this item of conventional wisdom. Six out of seven data sets also embody a striking pattern of gradually increasing age across time for new converts. In addition to uncovering the growing age-at-recruitment pattern — which I designate the E-correlation — I argue that: (1) With the exception of efforts to understand true youth movements such as Internet Satanism, attempts to interpret conversions to contemporary emergent religions as being a function of the imputed youthfulness of recruits is no longer in touch with the reality on the ground. (2) The persistence of the characterization of converts as youthful reflects a failure to build a strong empirical base for such generalizations. Instead, we have relied upon quantitative work carried out over a quarter of a century ago for much of what passes as conventional wisdom in the study of recruitment to alternative religions.

The Youth-Crisis Model of Conversion: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed?

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In Lewis 2007I presented survey data from the u.s. and census data from four other Anglophone countries which indicated that Paganism experienced explosive growth around the turn of the millennium. I attributed this rapid expansion to two factors: the advent of the Internet and the “Teen Witch” fad. In earlier versions of the present article I concluded that I must have been mistaken about the latter because the mean age of new Pagans did not drop during the last decade. However based on an examination of relevant statistics from the New Zealand census (Lewis and Bauman 2011:191–193) it appears instead that my mistake was in assuming that these youthful converts would stick with Paganism after they matured.

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