Suppose you have a woman friend, Ann, who is dating. She meets a guy who is handsome and has money and pays attention to her; he sweet talks her. Let's call him Adam.
But you know Adam's history. You know he has three former girlfriends or wives, abandoned with children, who talk of how cruel a man he was, after those first few sweet dates.
Being a good friend, you decide you have to rat out Adam. You tell Ann about Adam's exes.
You know what happens next. Most of the time Adam gets the girl. Why? Because Ann having already made a decision in favor of Adam, the new information gets rationalized away. Plus Adam is skilled in subjugating women.
You can understand a lot about the spread of religion from understanding this fact of human nature (and it is a gender-neutral fact, as far as I can tell). Once people commit to a religion, for whatever reason, new information seldom causes them to change their minds.
In the United States of America, we know that people change their religious affiliations relatively often compared to other cultures. But the number of conversions is limited. At the end of each generation, so far anyway, most people who are religious are in the same religion they were born in. The overall religious statistics of 2000 are not much different from those of 1900.
History is filled with examples of mass religious conversions. Most were forced by governments, as when most people in the lands around the Mediterranean Sea became Christian Orthodox in the Fourth Century A.D. under advisement from the Roman Emperors. These last couple of days I started reading Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan
by Francis L. Hawks, which looked tedious but so far has turned out to be a delightful travelogue of the Marco Polo sort. This reminded me to look up histories of Sumatra (part of Indonesia) and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as part of my studies for my work-in-progress The U.S. War Against Asia. But the history of changes in religious affiliations on those islands reminded me I have wanted to try writing a Dating a Religion essay. This is the first draft.
When a missionary or local proselytizer dates a potential convert, they don't usual start with a history lesson. In my experience, they don't even know the true history of their own religion. They start with a well-worked-out line. They treat you as if you are important to them. They tell you things that amount to spiritual flattery: you are immortal. Your life will improve if you join our community. They may use the stick, too: convert or go to hell.
The history of Christianity in Japan and of Japanese brands of Buddhism in the U.S informs the story well. The first Christians in Japan were Catholics from Portugal. The Portuguese were major league pirates and imperialists in that era (the 1500's), but the Catholic missionaries did not mention that. They converted quite a few people at first. As the Japanese rulers started worrying about being conquered by the Portuguese, they also learned about other imperialists powers and other versions of the Christian religion. The Catholic missionaries presented their religion as one of peace, but the real world facts did not match that fantasy (see, for instance the Thirty Years' War). That rulers of Japan decided to expel the missionaries and ban Christianity. That goes against our modern, American, tolerate-all-religions and hope they all calm down ethic. But it makes sense if you consider that the Christians were lying. The ruler of Japan were simply excluding a new brand of liars from their kingdom.
Buddhism (which with Shinto, was one of the two major religions of Japan) was known and even admired by some European, and later American, intellectuals, at least as early as the 18th century. But the big invasion of Japanese Buddhist sects into the U.S. started during the 1950s. Americans like Alan Watts and the Beatniks got a lot of people started in Buddhism. Later, specific sects from Japan saw the economic opportunities in setting up churches (usually called centers) in the U.S.
There was a time when I was young that I thought Buddhism was way better than Christianity. But now I realize that I was being fed a Zen pablum specially designed to attract Americans. Like Christian history, Buddhist history is filled with violence. The theology is different, but like Christianity it is a mixture of good observations that can be kept as folk wisdom, and ridiculous metaphysical speculations.
Once the hook is in the fish, the fish starts rationalizing it. I have met serial converters, but most people only change once in their life, perhaps twice. The most common oscillation to note is when those raised without religion decide they need one, and when those raised in a religion decide that rather than switching to another, they will just drop the matter.
I hope the development of a more coherent, reality-based philosophy and system of ethics will supplant the old faiths. In the mean time, the best I can do is urge those who are dating religions to look at their histories.
Histories are better predictors of future behavior that the sweet lies of courtship.