How do people get swept up into it?

When I was a young teenager, I would go to church with a friend who happened to be the pastor’s daughter. I was still skeptical but I thought going to church was the right thing to do, like maybe if I went often enough something would rub off on me. Growing up in rural Ohio, I didn’t know any different. 

The only thing that rubbed off on me from going to church was the music. One particular Sunday I really enjoyed a hymn that was sung. It was beautiful and after leaving church, it played on repeat in my head. The music left me flying high for the rest of the day, and I can see why some people might confuse this euphoric feeling for the holy spirit, but I never fell for it. 

Music was the only impactful thing that moved me about going to church, but attending services was merely a mask for my true feelings and my efforts at becoming a Christian soon ended.

When I described this to my husband he explained that he had a similar experience when he was younger. He attended a Christian music concert at a church with a friend and he said you could just feed off the energy in the room. It was electric. 

While my husband could relate to what I felt, he never became a Christian either. 

I am telling you these stories because I’m trying to understand how people get swept up in religion or even cults, especially if it wasn’t something they grew up with. What convinces people to believe in things that others see as ridiculous? What exactly moves you to that point?

I watched a documentary on Jonestown the other day, and while the People’s Temple seemed like a good idea in the beginning, we all know how that turned out. The documentary interviewed former cult members and survivors including Jim Jones’ own son. The show portrayed them as very normal people. I consider myself a sensitive and empathetic person, but I really have trouble relating to their stories. 

How do people get swept up? What moves people to believe? My examples of church music were the only thing I can think of to relate to. How do convince seemingly normal people to go along with something so outlandish? What sort of makeshift evidence flips the switch in their brain?

Also, has anyone else felt extremely moved by church music, even if you don’t believe? (Funny side note — I was told a couple weeks ago that music is so powerful in my life because I’m a Scorpio.) 


  1. John Morales says

    I think it’s more a matter of nature than of nurture; some people are just more predisposed to religious belief.

    re: “What moves people to believe?”

    The phrasing of that question suggests that people start out not believing, and then become believers. Not always the case. A personal anecdote:

    As a small child, I generally believed what I was told. Most children do.
    Additionally my proclivity, even to this day, is to take things quite literally.
    So I “believed” as a child, said bedtime prayers, etc. because religion (Catholicism specifically) was a major part of daily life in that milieu, and especially for me as I had a couple of stints at Jesuit boarding schools.

    Note that when I say I believed, I don’t mean in the sense that I felt wonder or excitement or the numinous or hope for life eternal or anything like that; it was more like a chore one did, because Heaven good but Hell really really really bad.

    By around the time I became pubescent, I grew out of such actual belief as there had been, and just treated my ostensible religiosity as necessary role-playing. By then I knew damn well people only ever paid lip-service to their religion in their quotidian life. It was all around me, the hypocrisy.

    So for me, it can be said that I started out as a “believer” and only as my development progressed did I see the show for what it was and become moved to disbelief.

    That said, I liked some of the music for the tune (shame about the words). There’s a hymn called “When I Needed A Neighbour” I really quite liked as a child.

  2. brightmoon says

    The only somewhat religious song that made me feel that way was Bow Down Mister by Culture Club which about Krishna ( I’m Christian) I love that song. Played and danced to it over and over for about a week. One song that I absolutely couldn’t stand was Spirit In The Sky by Norman Greenbaum. I just thought the song was fake because of the psychedelic sound effects added to a corny song . I rather dislike cheap and fake songs like that. Personally I thought the Supremes old hit Reflections was a much better example of how to do that correctly .

  3. sonofrojblake says

    In my experience there are two kinds of religious people.

    There are the ones who were brought up in it from infancy and simply never questioned it. And then there are the ones who came to it after some kind of trauma, during or immediately after which they were prayed/preyed upon by some evangelist and found religion to be an effective psychological crutch that they come to depend upon.

    Most religious music of my experience sound to me like dissonant dirges. None of the very rare exceptions spring immediately to mind. Most of the ones I liked at primary school were aimed squarely at children and in retrospect lacked the musical and lyrical sophistication of the theme tune to Peppa Pig.

  4. Ridana says

    When I was a kid, I misunderheard the lyrics to Mary Wells’ “My Guy,” thinking it was a religious song about “My God.” 😀

  5. billseymour says

    I grew up Episcopalian, and the church I went to in my teens used Vaughn Williams’ setting of “For All the Saints”.  I still love the music; but these days, the lyrics are problematic for me. 😎

    As for my own religiosity, I never really questioned my beliefs.  Indeed, when I was in high school, I had every intention of being a priest, and even read a A Theological Introduction to the 39 Articles of the Church of England.  (I confess that my eyes glazed over rather often during that exercise.)  It wasn’t until I started reading about science and came to understand how difficult it is to actually know something, and how easy it is for us to delude ourselves, that I finally realized that I just didn’t believe it any more.

  6. Trickster Goddess says

    I grew up in a Mennonite family but started questioning religion when I was 9 after hearing the story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son. It made me wonder “What if God tells my dad to kill me?”

    Although Mennonites sing in 4 part harmony I found most of their hymns to be dreary. However, occasional visits to my aunt in the US who attended a predominately Black church introduced me to the soaring passion of African-American gospel music which I still enjoy.

  7. SailorStar says

    Yesterday I read a piece by Leon Saltzman on The Psychology of Religious and Ideological
    Conversion. The premise is that conversion into a cult (works for both MAGA and religion) provides relief for their marks, who are looking for something to belong to and direct their actions. Then they isolate their marks, which resocializes them from their previous lives, to the cult.

    That not only describes MAGA who get their news from only cult-approved sources and their leader, but also religious people. Particularly the more fundamentalist sects of Christianity and megachurch goers. How many people have you known who joined one of those churches and cut off contact with everyone not in the cult? Plenty.

    I suspect some people are just not psychologically built to be susceptible to cults, and–in the case of those churches where everyone’s always judging, judging, judging–not desperate enough for the security of the cult to put up with the nonsense.

  8. vucodlak says

    Though I am no longer a follower of the Abrahamic religions, there are few pieces of music I find as moving as Azam Ali’s “Noor (The Light in my Eyes).”

    As for why people believe, there are too many reasons to reasonably go into in a comment. Speaking for myself, when I was a Christian I believed when I was a young child because everyone around me was a Christian. When I got a little older, and went through confirmation (a two-year class one has to take to become a full member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the denomination my parents belonged to), I believed because I was terrified of Hell. The head pastor as much as told me I was going to Hell, and I was desperate to escape that fate.

    I spent most of the next decade (that is, from ages 12 through roughly 22) groveling and pleading with God to be forgiven for the sins I’d been told were unforgivable. I’d committed them without intention to offend or knowledge of their gravity, so I hoped for some sign that forgiveness was at least possible. I got nothing, but I kept praying, trying not to question God (another unforgivable sin in LCMS) or argue that I deserved forgiveness.

    Then I lost some people very close to me who were emphatically not Christian. I could believe that I belonged in Hell, but hearing people say my friends deserved eternal damnation was too much. God never did a damn thing for them when they needed him, so who was he to condemn them? That’s when I stopped being a Christian.

    I didn’t, however, stop believing in gods right away. I looked for another deity, one that wasn’t the sort of monster who’d torture people for all eternity for insufficient obedience. I chose one who I’d been drawn to in the past, from the first moment I’d encountered her, and prayed to her.

    I didn’t get the response I’d been conditioned to expect from a god by my Christian upbringing. There was no voice from on high, no burning bush, no hosts of angels, that sort of thing, so I assumed I hadn’t been answered. I decided that there must be nothing to give an answer, so I became an atheist.

    And so I stayed for the next 10 years or so. I never stopped being interested in the idea of religion, however, and continued to study the subject. I came to understand that I was a very Christian atheist, meaning that my disbelief was principally shaped by expectations born of having been raised in a particular form of Christianity. Not everyone experiences the divine in ways the LCMS and other conservative USian Christian institutions define.

    I came to understand that my prayers had been answered, albeit in ways I had never anticipated. She helped me, without my having realized it, and she asked nothing in return. Understanding that would be, I suppose, was when I got “swept away.”

    Lots of things can move people to believe, from inertia and an incurious nature, to fear and hatred, to love and devotion. I can’t adequately explain why I believe in and love Au Set to someone who has never met her. I can tell you that she saved me, that she is kind to me, that she is patient with me, and that her vast wisdom has been a great help to me, but those are just words. I can’t scientifically prove her existence. I won’t claim I never have doubts, either.

    I guess I can’t really answer your question. I believe, and while I know why, it’s just not something I can put into any quantifiable terms.

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