Paradigm Shift and Religious Conversion


Conversations between Catholics and Protestants often produce more heat than light. The struggle is real, and is not made easier by inappropriate tactics and strategies that can turn friendly dialogue into an occasion for division. Seeing religious conversion in terms of a “paradigm shift” can be of great value to those seeking to give an answer to Protestants who ask about the Catholic faith.

Paradigms, Principles, and Particulars

Catholics and Protestants differ by something far more important than doctrinal particulars. While the spectrum of Protestant beliefs sometimes come close to the Catholic faith, a gulf remains between each group’s basic religious assumptions that must be crossed to truly affect conversion.[1] This gulf is between what can be called religious paradigms.[2]

A paradigm is an underlying model of reality which determines what subjects are to be studied, the kinds of questions and answers that are acceptable, and how evidence is to be interpreted. A paradigm, then, does not simply consist of a set of particular beliefs, but rather the principles behind those beliefs. This means that the move from one religious paradigm to another can be thought of as a paradigm shift. As we will see, such shifts require a revolution in thought – not simply an adjustment of theology. Further, achieving such a revolution is fraught with difficulties.

Problems with Paradigms

 The deep differences between competing paradigms can cause numerous difficulties when trying to communicate between those who hold them. First, because paradigms comes with their own set of underlying principles, comparing two or more of them requires attention to more than just the conclusions each one reaches. For example, the conclusion that infant baptism is not allowable because there are none recorded in the Bible may seem substantive on a Baptist paradigm that says, “Nothing is allowed that is not taught in Scripture.” On the other hand, one whose paradigm does not include such a principle will not be moved by this “lack of evidence” (after all, many things are allowed by Baptists that are not taught in Scripture – such as female communion).

Second, paradigms also tend to develop their own vocabulary, and specialized jargon makes cross-communication difficult.[3] For instance, when a Protestant speaks of “the Church” they typically are referring to the abstract collection of Christians everywhere in the world, whereas the Catholic usually means the concrete organization identifiable by apostolic leadership and the baptized who are in communion with them. Thus, if a Catholic says a Protestant is not a member of the Church, they only mean that a Protestant is not a Catholic – but the Protestant may take it to mean that Protestants are not even Christian.

Third, the above two difficulties combine to lead to a third. Until one can truly grasp what it is like to operate under both paradigms, some of the most important factors behind their division may simply go unnoticed. For example in the Catholic paradigm, faith is defined as one’s willful submission to a religious authority.[4] In the Protestant paradigm, however, faith usually refers to mere agreement with a set of beliefs (regardless of their source).[5] Not only does this difference threaten effective communication, it can also have effects at a deeper level. Because each Protestant’s faith is largely derived from their own personal study, convictions, and opinions, becoming Catholic means giving up that part of themselves. If this aspect goes unrecognized by either party, grave missteps in dialogue can occur.

Paradigm Shift and Religious Conversion

 The above difficulties are not unable to be overcome, however – and recognizing the steps in a paradigm shift can be helpful when one wishes to help someone along in the process. Various stages have been suggested for mapping paradigm shifts, here I will limit it to four: Stasis, Drift, Crisis, and Shift.

  1. Stasis is a time of stability when one’s paradigm seems successful in resolving problems and making progress in its given area. This changes when aberrations appear – certain phenomena or data that the paradigm cannot account for very well (or at all).
  2. Drift occurs when aberrations have seriously weakened the paradigm and some kind of alterations are required to fortify it.
  3. Crisis is reached when alterations to the current model cannot resolve its aberrations. This results in a time of exploration and experimentation with the resolutions offered by other models.
  4. Shift occurs when the previous paradigm suffers replacement by the more successful model, and a new period of stasis begins.

A Protestant-to-Catholic paradigm shift may look like the following:

During Stasis, the Protestant is likely happy in his chosen church and either unaware or unbothered by serious challenges to it. Catholicism is at best ignored or at worst considered evil. At this stage, the Catholic can help by asking leading questions about known aberrations to the Protestant paradigm (e.g., the determination of the biblical canon or the defining of orthodoxy). These can help the Protestant consider his position more seriously.

The Protestant may become uncomfortable with these aberrations even if at some level he retains confidence they can be internally resolved. To avoid cognitive dissonance, however, he may continue to seek more satisfactory resolutions to them. In this Drift stage, continued probing of important issues may help the Protestant conclude that these aberrations cannot be adequately addressed by simply altering certain aspects of his current tradition. The Catholic may suggest how these aberrations are resolved by the Catholic paradigm.

Should the Protestant begin seriously questioning his current position, he will enter into the Crisis stage. Now he will need a lot of loving support as he begins to consider that the answers he seeks may only be found outside his current tradition. Providing assurance when external resolutions are discovered can boost the Protestant’s confidence that there is hope at the end of this crisis of faith. Now is the time to offer substantive answers about what Catholics believe and why they believe it (1 Peter 3:15). The Protestant may be intellectually convinced that Catholicism is true in general, but still feel reticent toward specific features of the faith. Expect resistance, and welcome it as opportunities to help solidify the Catholic position. Here it is important to be able to give an answer concerning particularly Protestant “hot button” issues such as the Papacy, the Crusades, Inquisition, Mary, the Sacraments, Indulgences, Purgatory, the Deuterocanonicals, etc.

Should the Protestant decide to become Catholic, the Shift is not yet over. Nor will it be over after he has come into full communion with the Church. The new Catholic will occasionally operate under the Protestant paradigm without even knowing it. Changing vocabulary and thought patterns takes time – be careful to clarify terms and note if he “backslides” into Protestant thinking (e.g., challenging dogma based on sola scriptura). Reassurance will continue to be necessary until such time as Stasis is reached and the Catholic can proceed to deeper levels of conversion (a lifelong process).


When someone seems unmoved by good arguments for the faith, it may seem attributable to either sin (a defect of the will) or stupidity (a defect of the intellect), but it may be neither. Thomas Kuhn first described the idea of paradigm shift in terms of scientific progress – pointing out that scientific advancement was not so much based on simple observations and experiments, but by the overthrow of entire theoretical fields that were seriously resistant to change even in the face of contrary data.[6] If paradigms can cause these issues in observable science, imagine their effect on religion!

Treating religious conversion as a paradigm shift can help the Catholic aid the Protestant at each of its important stages and avoid taking the wrong steps at the wrong time.


[1] A validly baptized Protestant who becomes Catholic is technically moving from partial to full communion – not “converting” – but the process is much the same.
[2] To the best of my knowledge, this analogy was first detailed in sociologist Christian Smith’s book How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps (Wipf and Stock, 2011). Smith got the model from Thomas Kuhn’s influential book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago press, 1962/1996). The general idea has become rather ubiquitous even when used with less precision (example).
[3] See Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 147-148.
[4] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, II-II Q. 2, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church 142-165.
[5] One of the best discussions of this issue is Bryan Cross’s, The Tu Quoque.
[6] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.