"Religious conversion in plural Societies past and present"

Krämerbrücke Erfurt
Krämerbrücke Erfurt

Sebastian Rimestad (Leipzig), Katharina Waldner (Erfurt), Helena Kupari (Helsinki)

Erfurt, 11.07.2022-15.07.2022

Please find all relevant information about the Summer School "Religious Conversion in Plural Societies Past and Present" on the pages below.

Religious conversion is as elusive as it is topical in the contemporary world, where religious identifications and narratives have returned to the fore of political rhetoric and social scientific enquiry. The question of what constitutes a religious conversion can be asked from a variety of angles, not only on the theological, psychological, and sociological plane, but also as a political or legal definition. The necessity to gauge the sincerity of an asylum seeker’s conversion to decide his or her application is a case in point. What methods are appropriate to evaluate such a claim and who is qualified to judge such a case? But also less fateful cases of religious conversion can be ambivalent. Is a conversion from one branch of Christianity to another equal to a conversion from Christianity to Islam, for example? Or how does the de-conversion process of a former member of a closed religious community differ qualitatively from a conversion between Christian confessions? Is a conversion effectuated in 2022 in all aspects equal to one happening a century or more earlier?

At the same time, both the common sense idea and the scientific notion of “conversion” start from the premise that “religion” and “religious identity” are stable entities.  But in contemporary societies, the idea of a stable religious identity is increasingly questioned through religious pluralism, bricolage mentality, and expressive social identities. Moreover, the idea of European societies being recipients of immigrants with a variety of fixed religious and cultural subjectivities is being increasingly challenged. Instead, the concept of “post-migrantische Gesellschaft” in Germany or “société métissée” in France are becoming prominent, claiming that it is no longer useful to talk about the dichotomy between “natives” and “incoming migrants” but rather acknowledge the fact that national societies are culturally heterogeneous in general. What does religious conversion mean in such a situation of cultural heterogeneity? The concept of religious conversion, as used in psychology and sociology of religion, religious studies, and everyday language, must be re-evaluated to account for this situation. But not only for contemporary societies – one can also ask whether societies in the past really were religiously homogeneous and what “conversion” meant in them – especially against the background of the globalised present.

The purpose of this summer school is to gather graduate students, early career researchers (PhD students) as well as senior experts from different disciplines as well as various geographical, cultural, and historical contexts ranging from antiquity to contemporary societies in order to explore and develop different and new approaches to the concept of religious conversion. Moreover, these various approaches will enrich each other and create synergies, which can then be used for collaborative projects or events in the future.


International Summer School “Religious Conversion in Plural Societies Past and Present”, Erfurt, 11.–15. July, 2022


Religious conversion is as elusive as it is topical in the contemporary world, where religious identifications and narratives have returned to the fore of political rhetoric and social scientific enquiry. Both the common-sense idea and the scientific notion of “conversion” start from the premise that “religion” and “religious identity” are stable entities.  But in contemporary societies, the idea of a stable religious identity is increasingly questioned through religious pluralism, bricolage mentality, and expressive social identities. This raises a number of questions as to what constitutes a religious conversion and to what extent contemporary religious conversions conform to those of the past.

These questions and others will be approached from a variety of angles at a summer school addressed to graduate students (from advanced MA level to PhD) from a variety of disciplines, including Religious Studies, Anthropology, Sociology, History, Political Science, and others.  It will take place in Erfurt, Germany from 11. to 15. July, 2022 at the Augustinian Monastery, where Martin Luther started his career as a recently converted Catholic monk. The summer school is organised by Dr. Sebastian Rimestad (Leipzig), Prof. Dr. Katharina Waldner (Erfurt), and Dr. Helena Kupari (Helsinki) and will include participant presentations, workshops, lectures, and an excursion. For confirmed participants, all expenses are covered, including travel (up to € 750), accommodation and food.

In order to participate, please send a motivation letter of 1-2 pages to summerschoolconversion(at)uni-leipzig.de by 31. January, 2022

The letter must include

  • your educational background
  • your current affiliation and place of residence (to calculate travel costs)
  • your current research field and how this relates to the topic of conversion
  • the title of your presentation for the summer school, including a short abstract

For further information, please visit https://www.gkr.uni-leipzig.de/religionswissenschaftliches-institut/summer-school/ or send an e-mail to summerschoolconversion(at)uni-leipzig.de


We look forward to the Summer School, which will hopefully be an opportunity to meet in person after a long period of uncertainty due to CoVid-19, opening up for a fruitful exchange of ideas and perspectives and bringing the study of religious conversion forward!


Sebastian Rimestad, Katharina Waldner, and Helena Kupari

Monday, 11.07.2022:

15:00   Opening (Sebastian Rimestad, Katharina Waldner, Helena Kupari)

16:00   Guided tour of the St. Augustine Monastery

  • Dinner

19:30   Film screening

Tuesday, 12.07.2022:

09:00   Participant Presentations I

  • Lunch

13:30   Workshop I (Katharina Waldner)

16:00   Workshop II (Nella van den Brandt)

  • Dinner

19:30   Lecture I (Sebastian Rimestad)

Wednesday, 13.07.2022:

10:00   Excursion by train to Halle/Saale, Franckesche Stiftungen

19:30   Lecture II (Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, videolink)

Thursday, 14.07.2022:

09:00   Participant Presentations II

  • Lunch

13:30   Workshop III (Ines W. Jindra)

16:00   Workshop IV (Helena Kupari)

  • Dinner

19:30   Lecture III (Lena Rose)

Friday, 15.07.2022

09:00   Participant Presentations III

  • Lunch

14:00   Conclusion/Final Discussion (Sebastian Rimestad, Katharina Waldner, Helena Kupari)

Workshops and Lectures

Workshop I – Tuesday 12.07.2022, 13:30-15:30

Katharina Waldner: The long history of “conversion” and how to deal with it

The term “conversion” as well as the associated idea of a sudden, religious “conversion to a better life” comes from the ancient Christian tradition. The original scene is found in the “Confessiones” of the church father Augustine, which he wrote in the years 397-404 AD. In this workshop, starting from a discussion and interpretation of passages from Augustine, we will trace the long history of the term, but also use examples to discuss how we can usefully apply “conversion” in different epochs and cultural contexts.

Katharina Waldner is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Erfurt. She earned her PhD in History of Religion from the University of Zürich. Her research interests include Religions of Greek and Roman Antiquity, Early Christianity, Religion and Gender, and Ritual Theory.


Workshop II – Tuesday 12.07.2022, 16:00-18:00

Nella van den Brandt: Representing Religious Conversion

In Religious Studies and the Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, religious conversion is often studied by investigating the experiences of individuals and communities, and their sociopolitical and historical circumstances. This workshop instead takes literature, media and arts as material for studying notions of religious conversion and transformation. It explores the premise that stories about religious conversion in literature, arts and media are engaged in cultural work. This cultural work can be revealed by asking questions such as: How does this particular expression of religious conversion reflect specific understandings of religious individuals and communities? How is the representation of religious transformation, religious individuals and communities inflected by notions of religion/secularity, gender and race? How are these representations embedded in European sociopolitical realities?

A focus on cultural work thus assumes that studying representations of religious transformation provides a unique perspective on the construction, destabilization and re-imagining of Western European notions of religion, gender and race. In this workshop, we will explore this approach with the help of a selection of texts that focus on different ways of representing religious conversion.

Nella van den Brandt earned her PhD in Cultural Science on contemporary women's and social movements and religiosity from Ghent University (2014). She subsequently held a PostDoc position at the University of Utrecht on media and cultural representations as locations for studying religious transformation, gender, sexuality and ethnicity. Her new research is funded by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship and will be hosted by Coventry University. It focuses on women leaving religion in the UK and Netherlands. Her main research interests include Secularity, Gender/Sexuality Studies, Race and Religion Studies, Bodies and Embodiment, and the Construction of Emotion.


Lecture I – Tuesday 12.07.2022, 19:30-21:00

Sebastian Rimestad: The Concept of Conversion from a Religious Studies Perspective

Since the Reformation, the concept of “conversion” has been used to describe the turn from defective to true Christian belief. This was the meaning attributed to the term by the classic scholar of conversion, William James, at the end of the 19th century. For James, religious conversion was the healing of a divided soul through a true realisation of God’s grace.

Over the course of the 20th century, the use of the concept has proliferated into many areas far from religious vocabulary, while its scope has widened also within religious studies. Next to meaning a deepening of a sense of religious belonging, it is now used to denote a change of affiliation, however sincere or profound this change is experienced or perceived.

In the current field of conversion studies, there are three basic approaches to the concept, which come from psychology, sociology, and literature studies. These approaches each focus on different aspects of religious conversion and there is little overlap between them. My lecture will outline the three approaches and provide some suggestions as to how to bridge the gaps between them.

Sebastian Rimestad completed his PhD in Religious Studies on the Orthodox Church in Estonia and Latvia in 2011, and his Second Book on Orthodox Christian Identity in Western Europe in 2020. He is currently a Researcher at the University of Leipzig with a focus on Religious Conversion. His research interest are Religion and Modernity, Orthodox Christianity, and Religious Conversion.


Lecture II – Wednesday 12.07.2022, 19:30-21:00

Sarah Riccardi-Swartz: Doing Ethnography with Conservative Religious Converts 

This talk will explore the methodological, theoretical, and ethical challenges of qualitative work with conservative religious converts. Drawing on my own fieldwork with far-right converts to Russian Orthodoxy in the American South, I explore how ethnographic research, often considered the gold standard for the field of anthropology, often becomes a precarious and even dangerous practice in certain ideological situations. Considering research ethics, the role of reflexivity, and analyzing alternative ontologies, this lecture attends to the demands and tasks of researchers who take seriously the religious lifeworlds of their interlocutors. 

Sarah Riccardi Swartz finished her PhD at New York University on American Orthodox convert communities in 2020. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the project: Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism, and Democracy in a Post-Truth Era, which is hosted by the Center for Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University. She is an anthropologist and filmmaker, focusing on American conservative politics, race, exvangelicals and Orthodox Christianity.


Workshop III – Thursday 14.07.2022, 13:30-15:30

Ines W. Jindra: Studying Conversion Narratives Using Narrative Biographical Research

In this workshop, we will be looking at biographical sociology, basically the understanding of biographies with qualitative research methods. After a brief introduction and discussion of the methods used in biographical sociology, we are jointly analyzing the first part of two different conversion narratives from an interview setting, with converts to two different religious groups. We will be looking at  these interviews through an interdisciplinary  lens that combines sociology and psychology.

Ines W. Jindra is Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Idaho, focusing on Religion and Spirituality as well as Homelessness and Poverty. She earned her PhD in Education and Educational Psychology from the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) on the topic of Religious Conversions in 2005. Her main research interests include Narrative Biographical Interviews, Psychology of Religion, and Social Policy.


Workshop IV – Thursday 14.07.2022, 16:00-18:00

Helena Kupari: The Practice of Conversion

Alongside inquiries into factors of religious change, contemporary scholarship on conversion is also interested in the concrete processes through which change takes place. This research has emphasized the role of sustained social action in constructing and consolidating religious identities and worlds. Research into various Protestant Christian groups has highlighted the constitutive dimensions of discursive practices such as telling conversion narratives, witnessing, and confession. Embodied and material practices have also been accorded attention, for example among scholars studying Islam. Thus, praying, fasting, and modest behavior have been acknowledged as integral to the process of becoming Muslim. Beyond individual transformations, moreover, it is also possible to examine how normative categories and orientations related to conversion are continuously being established through practice, for instance in how members of a religious community are encouraged to interact with non-members.

In this workshop, we will critically investigate the premise that conversion takes form through sustained social action with the help of a selection of texts that focus on different aspects of the practice of conversion.

Helena Kupari is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland. She earned her PhD in Religious Studies in 2015. Her ongoing research focuses on conversion to Orthodox Christianity among Finnish cultural workers. Her research interests include religion, gender, age, and class; religion and social transformation, practice theory, and lived religion.


Lecture III – Thursday 14.07.2022, 19:30-21:00

Lena Rose: Conversion through the Eyes of the State

Among recent forced migrations, asylum claims on the basis of fear of religious persecution following a religious conversion are frequent. In Europe, these are brought predominantly by Iranian and Afghan converts to Christianity, though a smaller number of cases also involve Iranian converts to the Baháʼí faith, Middle Eastern ‘converts’ to atheism or non-religion, or Chinese converts to the Falun Gong movement. In these asylum adjudications, decision-makers employed by secular states have to assess the genuineness of the respective conversion, and the risks of practising the religion (or non-religion) in the country of origin of the applicant.

The phenomenon of asylum adjudications based on religious conversion or de-conversion raises a number of important questions: for example, how can one adequately assess the genuineness of a religious conversion or de-conversion? Can, or should, this be the role of the secular state and its legal decision-makers? If so, how does the state decide which forms and practices of a particular religion or non-religion are ‘acceptable’? What kinds of proofs can aid in determining a conversion’s credibility? Furthermore, what is the role of religious actors such as churches, both in the countries of destination as well as in the countries of origin or transit in these processes?

In this lecture, I will provide an overview of the challenges of the adjudication of asylum claims based on conversion. Drawing on my own ethnographic and socio-legal research of asylum processes based on conversion to Christianity in Germany I will argue that these cases highlight the tension between religion, culture, and power: they point to much broader debates regarding the way European legal authorities conceive of their own historically Christian identity, and the processes of inclusion and exclusion that result from it.

Lena Rose is Leverhulme Trust Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies of the Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford, UK. She completed her DPhil in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the same university (2019), focusing on the role of power in the circulation of ideas, resources, people, and theology within global evangelicalism. Her current project examines the negotiation of ‘Christianity’ through the lens of asylum adjudications of claimants based on the fear of religious persecution following a conversion to Christianity.

The Summer School "Religious Conversion in Plural Societies Past and Present" addresses young researchers (advanced M.A. level and PhD candidates), who deal with a topic related to religious conversion. This includes the academic disciplines of Religious Studies, Anthropology, Sociology, History, and Political Science. We plan to invite up to 15 participants, whose costs are covered.

The list of participants will be posted here when it is ready.

The Summer School takes place in the city of Erfurt in central Germany, the capital of Thüringen. Erfurt has a medieval origin and it was here that Martin Luther started his university studies. At one time, while he was on his way home, a fierce thunderstorm cam upon him and he promised to devote his life to the Church if he survived. As a result, he became an Augustinian monk in an Erfurt monastery, incidentally the exact venue of the Summer School.

For more information on the city of Erfurt, visit https://www.erfurt-tourismus.de/en/

For more information on the St. Augustine Monastery, visit https://www.augustinerkloster.de/en/



The Summer School is funded through the German Science Foundation (DFG) – Heisenberg Programme.