Confession may seem like an odd part of conversion, but it is particularly effective at enabling people to put an undesirable past behind them. As well as a conversion technique, it is also useful for retention.
It is very widespread method. Some religions make use of it. But so also do parents when converting unruly children into functional adults. Machiavellian people and groups, where the end justifies the means, may well use it to extremes.
Agreeing the rules
The basic idea behind confession is that there are some things which are bad, and which contravene defined rules and values. The stage before actual confession thus involves reaching a point where agreement is reached about what is good and what is bad.
Agreement over rules typically starts with generalized rules with which it is hard to disagree, for example ‘people should help one another’. There are many such common human values that provide an easy starting place.
Tightening the rules
These rules may then be gradually tightened over time. As people accept the basic premise, additional judgment criteria are added. Thus, for example, ‘people should help one another’ becomes ‘people should help one another at every opportunity’ to ‘you must always put the interests of other people before your own interests’ to ‘you are inferior to everyone’.
The assumptions of guilt and atonement
A basic assumption (and by implication a rule) that is often unspoken is that the person in question is already guilty. Guilt is an effective lever that casts the person as imperfect and inferior. The associated assumption is that guilt may be assuaged by atonement of some kind, whereby the person may be forgiven for the bad things they have done. This creates a two-sided force by which hurt and rescue may be applied.
Having agreed what the rules are, individuals are encouraged to confess past ‘sins’. Again, this may start easily with trivial sins such as ‘Not helping John carry his bags’ and then progress to more significant ‘failures’.
The tension of guilt
This creates a tension between the person’s actions and their stated belief that the action is bad. The consistency principle thus leads the person to fully adopt the belief that the sin is bad and to distance themselves from repeating it. The situation is also encouraged by making non-confession to be a sin itself.
Release and atonement
Confessing thus leads to a blessed relief, especially when the tension has been exacerbated by declarations of how terrible sins are and how the person is understood to be basically good.
Confession under pressure can thus appear as a sudden breakdown, where a previous resistance suddenly collapses. This can lead to a sudden outpouring of information.
Confession provides an initial release, but further atonement may be demanded. This may start with simple chores or repeating of meaningful texts, but may also be escalated. Punishments may be meted out or may even be applied by the person themselves (thus further hammering home their guilt).
The subtle lever of authority
A subtle implication of all this is to position the sinner as inferior and the person to whom they are confessing as superior. This provides a lever of authority that the sinner cedes to the person receiving the confession, which then allows this superior person to control the person further. This control may range from defining new sins to giving direct commands outside of the confessional domain.
The building of trust
Confessing sins is to expose vulnerability, which requires trust. Confession thus acts to increase the bonding of the individual to those hearing the confession, as consistency principle provides the argument that if I am confessing, then those listening must be trustworthy. When we bond with others, they become our friends, and we will tend to adopt their beliefs more easily.
The whole effect may be intensified by making the confession public. It both increases the hurt of discomfort and also enables a greater rescue effects and consequent relief. The higher levels of emotion involved have a much greater effect in creating bonds with the listening group.