Andrew BowenProject Conversion

Andrew Bowen
Image from Project Conversion

Words can be like x-rays if you use them properly–they’ll go through anything.  You read and you’re pierced.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.

Confucius

When confronted with the realization his burning hatred was threatening all those he loved most, Andrew Bowen decided he had to do something.  His solution seemed simple in concept, but proved to be one of the most profound–and profoundly changing–experiences of his life:  for the year of 2011 his wife and daughters supported him in his personal project to live the life of the faithful of several religions, a different one each month.  His testament of the experience, Project Conversion:  One Man, 12 Faiths, One Year, is mindblowing.  Painfully honest and profoundly insightful, his book chronicles Mr. Bowen’s quest as he set aside his ego and truly listened to the hearts and beliefs of people wildly different from his common experience, because he no longer wished to be ruled by hatred and fear.

To get as close as possible to experiencing the unique world views of each religion, each month Andrew immersed himself as much as humanly possible in the beliefs, scriptures, practices, and observances of each group, gaining deepened understanding, respect, and admiration for those he once despised.  It was a pleasure to visit with him about his experience, and he was happy to take a few moments and share his experience with me:

1.  What is your background and professional calling?
My background is a variable mess of experience. I have worked on construction sites, sold insurance, worked in a printing press, sold software, cooked, washed dishes, detailed trucks, and countless more odd jobs. However one trade that has run long and true, like a river through various towns, is writing. I am a writer, a storyteller, above all things. The object of my writing is religion.

2.  It is a span of several years, but what caused your shift from being a Christian band member in high school to being overtly antagonistic to all faith?
My hatred toward faith metastasized very slowly. Several events, not unlike small yet potent doses of radiation, contributed to a gradual increase of my cancerous hatred. Once my Christian faith slipped away in college due to a cooling interest, the life blows I sustained personally as well as a member of society, radicalized me against faith. Few were more powerful than the September 11th attacks, my expulsion from the Marine Corps (medical reasons), and the tragic end of one of our pregnancies. The last event pushed me toward militant and near violent anti-theism.

3.  What caused you to confront your antagonism with such a positive, constructive endeavor as Project Conversion?  How difficult was it to find mentors for each faith, and convince them to take you on as a student?
I understood with stark clarity, as I abused everyone of faith–even my own wife–that if I continued along this path of hate that I would very likely end up in no uncertain terms with blood on my hands. With that, I found myself at a crossroads and realized that I needed a detox program, a sort of chemotherapy if you will, to eliminate the cancer of hate. The most effective cure I could devise was that of immersion.

Finding mentors was a challenge due to my isolation from any cultural centers, however once I found mentors they were more than happy to assist in my goal.

4.  What single experience was most surprising, the most different from what you were expecting?  Is there a single experience that most confirmed the importance of your Project?
I think the brilliance of the Project Conversion journey is that every month surprised, challenged, and transformed me in a unique way. There were no typical days. Some of the greatest change occurred during months with faiths in which I had a more conflicted past, such as Islam and the Latter-day Saints.

5.  It had to have been difficult for your family.  How are they now?  How has everyone grown from this experience?
The experience was difficult for my family on a number of levels. Each immersion demanded hours of study or travel, not to mention exhaustion brought on by my unrelenting attention to the task at hand. My family endured every struggle and breakthrough and in the end we all rose from the forge closer and more appreciative of our bond. My wife also grew more deeply in her faith and now my children know more about various faiths than many adults I know.

6.  Which experience are you the most grateful for?  Which experience are you most relieved that’s over?
There were many cases where I did not think I could persist, as 2011 was the most difficult year of my life and the closest I came to losing several relationships. I was exhausted, discouraged, confused, in pain, but my family, friends, and advisers were vigilant with their support. I am glad the entire journey is over, yet grateful it occurred.

7.  Is there something we can do that doesn’t involve living for a month as a person of another faith, or is that the only way to gain perspective and appreciation for another’s beliefs?
What folks reading this book must understand is that it was a tailor-made intervention for myself. That does not preclude others from participating, but it does not imply that a year-long immersion process is the only path to know other faiths. I recommend however, that everyone dive into the lives and cultures of others on a regular basis, because like travel, it expands the heart and the mind, builds relationships, enlightens the soul, and increases our humanity.

8.  How has this changed your faith, your view on faith, and your perception of the faithful?  Was it worth it?
I do not prescribe to a religion nor to a belief in God. I’m agnostic in that regard, but have a great interest now in religion and how people utilize it in their daily lives. For me it isn’t so important what they believe as much as how they operate within that system to serve and love others, and improve upon the world. If we can all accomplish that, then the differences between the faiths become secondary.

His voyage reminds me of the Conference of the Birds–all the birds of the world met to find enlightenment, and those selected for the journey were themselves completely transformed.  The world would be a boring place if we were all identical, and I am grateful for the courage of people like Andrew Bowen who discover for us the wonder–and enlightenment–of difference.

O mankind!  We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other)

Qur’an, 49:13

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