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

in Numen
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


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?

in Numen



AdlerMargot Drawing Down the Moon 1986 Boston Beacon Press [1979]

AndersenPeter B.WellendorfRie “Kilder til et ikke eksisterende fællesskab” Chaos Dansk-norsk tidsskrift for religionshistoriske studier 2002 37 9 20

AndersenPeter B. LewisJames R. “Community in Scientology and among Scientologists” Scientology 2009 New York Oxford University Press 143 163

BarkerEileen The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? 1984 Oxford Blackwell

BarkerEileen “Twenty Years After: Ageing of and Ageing in the New Religions” 2010 Presentation at Twenty Years After: Secularization and Desecularization in Central and Eastern Europe. Brno Czech Republic: International Study of Religion in Central and Eastern Europe Association

BergerHelen A. “Pagan Men and Gender Equity by the Numbers” 2010a Presentation at the American Academy of Religion meeting October 30–November 1 Atlanta

BergerHelen A. “Preliminary Finds from the Pagan Census Revisited” 2010b Presentation at the Eastern Sociological Society meeting March 18–21 Boston

BergerHelen A. “Goddess Worship and Political Activity” 2011 Presentation at the Eastern Sociological Society Meeting February 24–27 Philadelphia

BergerHelen A.LeachEvan A.SchafferLeigh S. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States 2003 Columbia, S.C. University of South Carolina Press

BergerHelen A.EzzyDouglas Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for Self 2007 New Brunswick, N.J. Rutgers University Press

BromleyDavid G. GallagherEugene V.AshcraftW. Michael “Affiliation and Disaffiliation Careers in New Religious Movements” Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America 2006 Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press 42 64

BromleyDavid G. ClarkePeter C. “New Religions as a Specialist Field of Study” Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion 2009 New York Oxford University Press 723 741

ByrnePaul The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament 1988 London Croom Helm

DawsonLorne L. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements 1998 Toronto Oxford University Press

DawsonLorne L. DawsonLorne L. “Who Joins New Religions and Why: Twenty Years of Research and What Have We Learned?” Cults and New Religions: A Reader 2003 Oxford Blackwell Publishing 116 130

DawsonLorne L. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements 2006 2nd ed. Toronto Oxford University Press

DusenberyVerne A. O’ConnellJoseph T.IsraelMiltonOxtobyWillard G. “Punjabi Sikhs and Gora Sikhs: Conflicting Assertions of Sikh Identity in North America” Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century 1988 Toronto Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Toronto 334 355

ElsbergConstance Waeber Graceful Women: Gender and Identity in an American Sikh Community 2003 Knoxville University of Tennessee Press

ElsbergConstance Waeber LewisJames R. “‘Strong as Steel, Steady as Stone’: Skirting Pitfalls in 3ho/Sikh Dharma” Violence and New Religious Movements 2011 New York Oxford University Press 325 350

Gallagher “A Religion without Converts? Becoming a Neo-Pagan” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 1994 62 3 851 867

GoorenHenri Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices 2010 New York Palgrave MacMillan

HardacreHelen Marketing the Menacing Fetus in Japan 1999 Berkeley University of California Press

JakobshDoris “3ho/Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere: The ‘Forgotten’ New Religious Movement?” Religion Compass 2008 2 385 408

JenningsM. Kent “Residues of a Movement: The Aging of the American Protest Generation” The American Political Science Review 1987 81 2 367 382

KhalsaKirpal Singh “New Religious Movements Turn to Worldly Success” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1986 25 2 233 247

KöseAli “Religious Conversion: Is It an Adolescent Phenomenon? The Case of Native British Converts to Islam” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 1996 6 4 253 262

LambChristopherBryantM. Darrol Religious Conversion: Contemporary Practices and Controversies 1999 London Continuum

LaueThorsten Kundalini Yoga Yogi Tee und das Wassermannzeitalter: Religionswissenschaftliche Einblicke in die Healthy Happy Holy Organization (3HO) des Yogi Bhajan 2007 Berlin LIT

LevineSaul V. Radical Departures: Desperate Detours to Growing Up 1984 San Diego Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

LewisJames R. Seeking the Light: Uncovering the Truth About the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness and Its Founder John-Roger 1997 Los Angeles Mandeville Press

LewisJames R. “Who Serves Satan? A Demographic and Ideological Profile” Marburg Journal of Religious Studies 2001 accessed 5 May 2012 6 2 url:

LewisJames R. JohnstonHannah E.AloiPeg “The Pagan Explosion” The New Generation Witches: Teenage Witchcraft in Contemporary Culture 2007 Aldershot Ashgate Publishing 13 24

LewisJames R. “Autobiography of a Schism” Marburg Journal of Religious Studies 2010 accessed 5 May 2012 15 1 url:

LewisJames R. “Cracks in the Conversion Network Paradigm” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 2012a 3 2 143 162

LewisJames R. Cults: A Reference and Guide 2012b 3rd ed. Sheffield Equinox Publishing

LewisJames R. SegalRobertvon StuckradKocku Forthcoming “New Religious Movements” Vocabulary for the Study of Religion Leiden Brill

LewisJames R.LevineNicholas M. Children of Jesus and Mary 2010 New York Oxford University Press

LewisJames R.BaumannAndreas “New Religions and the New Zealand Census: Are Meaningful Generalizations About nrm Members Still Possible?” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 2011 2 2 179 200

LucasPhillip The Odyssey of a New Religion 1995 Indianapolis Indiana University Press

MattauschJohn A Commitment to Campaign 1989 Manchester University of Manchester Press

MeltonJ. GordonMooreRoger L. The Cult Experience: Responding to the New Religious Pluralism 1982 Cleveland Pilgrim Press

ReidSíân PizzaMurphyLewisJames R. “‘A Religion Without Converts’ Revisited: Individuals, Identity and Community in Contemporary Paganism” Handbook of Contemporary Paganism 2009 Leiden Brill 171 191

RochfordE. Burke Hare Krishna in America 1985 New Brunswick, N.J. Rutgers University Press

RochfordE. Burke Hare Krishna Transformed 2007 New York New York University Press

RochfordE. Burke 2011 May 16 Personal communication to author

SmithChristianDentonMelinda LundquistFarisRobertRegnerusMark “Mapping American Adolescent Religious Participation” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 2002 41 4 597 612

TobeyAlan GlockCharles Y.BellahRobert N. “The Summer Solstice of the Healthy-Happy-Holy Organization” The New Religious Consciousness 1976 Berkeley University of California Press 5 30

TøllefsenInga “Art of Living: Religious Entrepreneurship and Legitimation Strategies” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 2011 2 2 255 279


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.

Index Card

Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 45 45 13
Full Text Views 11 11 10
PDF Downloads 2 2 2
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0