David Cregg, a Polymathic Scholar from Katy, Texas, developed his minor The Conversion Experience by merging two of his passions: religious studies and psychology. In addition to the UF minor, he is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and enjoyed studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland this past fall with the help of a scholarship he received from Polymathic Scholars.
Why did you join Polymathic Scholars?
I received an email from Madison prior to my freshman year, in which he explained that Polymath Scholars is a program that allows me to design my own minor. I was immediately intrigued by the freedom to study a topic of my choice and the prospect of completing a capstone project sounded very rewarding, so I hopped on board.
What is your topic for UF? What disciplines does it integrate?
My topic is “The Conversion Experience,” which I envision being a broad study of the phenomenon of religious conversions from three main angles. The first angle is a review of how religious conversions are defined by both religious or spiritual traditions and academics. I am exploring how a traditional conversion experience is described by the Abrahamic faiths and whether non-Abrahamic belief systems also describe a conversion process. Additionally, I want to examine how eminent scholars such as psychologist William James, author of the classic Varieties of Religious Experience, have attempted to explain conversions. Secondly, I plan to investigate which factors, if any, influence the occurrence of religious conversions. I am curious to see if there is a correlation between age, race, economic class, level of education, and so forth, and conversion experiences. Finally, I hope to research how a conversion changes an individual in terms of their health, behavior, and ideas. For part of this last question, I think it would be very interesting to compare the writings or behavior of individuals before and after their conversions. My topic combines religious studies, psychology, philosophy, history, and sociology.
How did you become interested in your UF topic?
My interest in this topic stems from the two fields I am most passionate about: religious studies and psychology. In order to make sense of how I became interested in religious studies, I will need to briefly recount some personal details. I was raised attending church, so from a young age I was imbued with a love of theology. However, during my junior year of high school I began to have some very serious and sincere intellectual doubts about my religious beliefs. Consequently, I began a prolonged period of research into the objections I had, and my inquiries took me everywhere from the basic theologies of other world religions to the history of Christianity to philosophy. The specific doubts I had at that time have since subsided, but I have still maintained that love of “following the argument wherever it leads,” to take a Socratic phrase, and investigating religious questions with an open mind. During my freshman year at UT, I read The Question of God by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Armand Nicholi, Jr. He described a study he conducted with Harvard students who had experienced a religious conversion, and found that they experienced “marked improvement in ego functioning… a radical change in lifestyle with the abrupt halt in the use of drugs… improved academic performance [and] enhanced self-image.” When I read this, a light bulb sparked in my mind and I realized I could combine my love of psychology with an interesting topic in the academic study of religion. That’s when I began to think of ways to expand the study of religious conversions into a broader topic.
What is the most interesting thing you have learned so far about your topic?
I haven’t taken any courses yet, but one interesting thing I have discovered from briefly mentioning my topic to others is that everyone seems to have at least a basic, intrinsic interest in conversion experiences, whether it’s a positive or negative outlook. This is a topic that concerns perspectives on humans’ ostensible experiences with the divine, and as such I’ve found it is of personal interest to both the religious and non-religious alike.
What do you believe you have gained, personally or professionally, from being a part of Polymathic Scholars?
I value the community of scholars that PS provides. I know I can always find someone in UF to engage in an intriguing discussion with, and my own curiosity has been stimulated by the great variety of disciplines I have been exposed to through my peers’ topics.
Do you have any advice for other Polymathic Scholars on how to make the most of the program?
Do not pick a topic solely because it will help you get into (insert career goal here). Pick a topic that you are both truly curious about and driven to study. Ideally, you can combine business and pleasure and find a topic that is both relevant to your career path and something you are passionate about. Polymathic Scholars is a unique program that not many universities provide, and as you progress in your career your tasks typically become increasingly narrow and specialized. Take advantage of this opportunity to study something you may never have the opportunity to study again.
What is your favorite thing about the program?
The proposal class led by Madison. This was a class comprised of about twelve students in which we took turns each week sharing and reviewing the most recent draft of our proposal. In addition to meeting some great friends, our proposals benefited from the thorough vetting of several minds offering suggestions. It was eye-opening to see how the unique insights of different individuals combined to create the best possible proposal. One-on-one peer review is beneficial, but having many students discuss the suggestions all at once has a much greater effect. Additionally, because of the generosity of Polymathic Scholars, I received a scholarship to take a religious studies course at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland this past fall. The University of Edinburgh hosts the “Gifford Lectures,” a series of lectures on natural theology. It was at this very university that William James delivered lectures that would later be published as the aforementioned Varieties of Religious Experience. It was an absolute dream of mine to study at this school, and I am very impressed with PS for helping to make my dream a reality.