Journal Article Researching Deconversion

A friend pointed me to a journal article by Heinz Streib studying deconversion experiences:

"The Variety of Deconversion Experiences - Contours of a Concept in Respect to Empirical Research" (co-author: Keller, Barbara), in: Archive for the Psychology of Religion / Archiv für Religionspsychologie 26: 181-200 (2004) (.pdf)

My comments will be placed below the fold.

The author reflects the lack of research done on deconversions, and I like his outline for clarifying the concept itself:
It may however be important for understanding the process of deconversion to attend to the loss of specific religious experiences which deconverts talk about in their interviews. The loss of religious experiences, or the attraction to a new kind of religious experience, may be an element of deconversion which occurs as early in the deconversion process and are as important for this process as intellectual doubt and denial or moral criticism.

Thus we may add this to our list of elements in our conceptualization of deconversion.

We conclude the interindividual commonalities of deconversion with an extended list of definition elements.

Deconversion consists in:

1. Loss of specific religious experiences (Experiential Dimension); this means the loss of finding meaning and purpose in life; the loss of the experience of God; of trust and of fear;
2. Intellectual doubt, denial or disagreement with specific beliefs (Ideological Dimension); heresy (sensu Berger) is an element of deconversion;
3. Moral criticism (Ritualistic Dimension) which means a rejection of specific prescriptions and/or the application of a new level of moral judgement;
4. Emotional suffering (Consequential Dimension); this can consist in a loss of embeddedness/social support/sense of stability and safety;
5. Disaffiliation from the community which can consist of a retreat from participation in meetings or from observance of religious practices; finally, the termination of membership which eventually follows.

These interindividual commonalities of deconversion can be used to structure empirical research, and as criteria of what characterizes biographical accounts as deconversion stories.
I just find #1 rather problematic if it is not taken as an "interindividual commonality" - something which may not be shared coequally amongst deconvert groups. After all, many of us would argue that the phrase, "God has purpose for my life" is meaningless and inspired much confusion as a believer, and that self-ownership follows from, and is necessary for, one to evaluate the value/meaning/purpose of ones own life.

The implicit association here is between deconversion and ultimate loss, rather than temporary transition, in values and purposes. That is fallacious. All of us go through changes in the way we view our purposes and meaning whether we apostasize, remain Christian, or never become one. Life and its experiences bring us new perspectives, and it is rare for people to exist in an existential vacuum.


Rev. Bob said...

Yeah, I understand your reservations about:

this means the loss of finding meaning and purpose in life; the loss of the experience of God; of trust and of fear;

But the authors are clearly not saying that people who deconvert are no longer able to experience trust or fear. Deconverters have simply stopped trusting or fearing a deity. So with that example, perhaps we might forgive the imprecision of the first item: we simply no longer experience a divine meaning and purpose (M&P) to life. We may be head over heels in love with our own ideas about M&P; we might joyfully adopt other people's M&Ps; we just don't think of the M&P as divine.

Myself, I think that's a good thing, even for people who like to have a place for everything and everything in its place. The idea of divine M&P always has about it the inevitability that, being less than divine ourselves, we'll never fully know God's M&P. Once we've accepted responsibility for figuring out our own M&P, we can come up with much better alternatives, some borrowed from religion, some from other places. And even more importantly, unlike believers who are told to be patient and pray for divine revelation rather than reading and thinking and seeking for themselves, we never stop searching for the M&P of life.

Which raises an important point: just who is it who's stopped searching? Not atheists.

Dave Armstrong said...

I've responded to John Loftus's deconversion story on my blog:

As always, everyone is welcome to comment on my blog. We don't insult people or hound them off, like so many blogs of all stripes. We have civil conversation.

Dave Armstrong