Naturally, I had my own pre-assumptions and ideas on the topic, but I made a conscious effort to put them aside from the beginning of the project. I tried to maintain a neutral and naive attitude throughout, making sure my findings were grounded in the data and being aware of my own confirmation bias.
From an epistemological standpoint, although I favour the view that social reality is mainly socially constructed, I believe that there is an objective reality behind it that can be accessed to some degree, and I avoid notions of extreme relativism and postmodernism. From the outset of this study I have speculated that there would be some factors that, independently of each particular individual, would be common to most people going through deconversion.
The full analysis generated a proposed model of deconversion See Figure 1. The three emerging core categories of this model include: reason and enquiry ; criticism and discontent ; and personal development. Each category was further divided into more specific subcategories. The core categories, while strongly interlinked, were still identified as separate emerging themes. While certain categories were more influential than others depending on the individual, all three were generally present in the process of deconversion.
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Taken together, our findings reflect the process of deconversion as a gradual progression characterized by a cumulative effect and by significant events or milestones that hold special meaning for individuals. The following sections further detail each of the main features of the model of deconversion. A strong cognitive element, the core category of reason and enquiry is characterized by an intellectual impetus, the use of reason, and the act of questioning. Doubt was pervasive and it emerged during the early stages of the analysis.
Most of the time doubt prompted nagging questions that felt unavoidable and needed to be asked, sometimes starting as early as childhood. In other cases doubts were ignored and suppressed until they accumulated and became too numerous and impossible to evade. Participants also recalled how faith-based answers to these questions were particularly unsatisfying, since they felt that answers grounded in logic and everyday experience were more appropriate.
Reflecting on the factors that played a role in her deconversion, Participant C commented:. A former minister from the CP articulated clearly the role of reason and logical explanations in his experience:. It was the logic of science that killed my belief in a god. I discovered that astrophysics has a more provable story of how the cosmos came to exist; and that biological evolution has a more testable account of how humans were created.
The development of critical thinking was, for many, the key to find the answers they were looking for and to make sense of the world. Sometimes this was aided by having attended higher-level education, by talking to different people who would encourage participants to start wondering about different issues, and by reading books and other materials. Critical thinking was also the means by which previous religious experiences were reinterpreted in non-supernatural terms, as this extract from the CP testimonies describes:.
Then I started thinking, in all my years of prayer, how many times had I actually heard the voice of God? How many times had I seen His presence work to answer my request? My memories were full of emotional outbursts, personal intuitions, and positive thinking. What if my God had never intervened for me? What if I had wanted to believe so much that I had given credit to divinity for what humanity had accomplished? As can be observed from the previous quote, it was common for deconverts to show skepticism, examine previous assumptions, and consider alternative explanations while avoiding a reliance on feelings and emotions.
The second core category, criticism and discontent, is defined by a disapproval of religious institutions, ideas, and behaviors on moral and ethical grounds which, in turn, generates feelings of detachment and rejection. For some, both of these feelings served as the starting point for the questioning of religious belief. For others, these feelings intensified any existing doubt and questioning, as described above. This theme was originally conceptualized as disappointment with God, with the Church, with religious people ; however, further analysis found that criticism and discontent was a more appropriate description of the data.
This change was justified on the basis that disappointment does not necessarily rule out disbelief; for instance, a person might be disappointed with the clergy but still believe in God. As an institution, the Church was frequently condemned by participants for its stance on social issues.
For example, when asked about their process of deconversion Participant F answered:. A concern with fairness and justice was also apparent, with some participants and former clergy complaining about lack of support, feeling they were unfairly judged or that other religious people were unsympathetic to their needs. They also witnessed the same kind of treatment towards others. Hypocrisy and bigotry from some religious individuals and leaders also fostered discontentment with religion and undermined belief.
Once example was religious influence on politics and incitement of intolerance towards other groups. Participant D described a group of people that he personally knew who were excited about going to an important religious event; however, as he describes, they did not always adhere to religious standards:. But I knew these guys quite well, and three of them had girlfriends as well as wives, they were, many of them were drinking too much, two of them probably were gambling addicted or playing the horses quite a bit….
Other issues raised in this category included the malleability of canon law by men, how barbaric episodes from the Old Testament could serve as teachings in the modern day, and why a loving God would send people to hell. These concerns were not merely critiques, but were also indicative of a deeply troubled relationship with belief.
The final core category, personal development, is characterized by a process resulting in the discarding of religious belief and the desire for a greater sense of freedom, empowerment, honesty, and an interest in self-knowledge. Here, differences emerged between the experiences outlined in the CP testimonies and those from the interviews. When former pastors and ministers started to have doubts about their beliefs they had a greater interest than interviewees in maintaining and strengthening their faith. Arguably, they experienced their waning faith more painfully, feeling ignored by God at the beginning of their deconversion.
Former clergy members had to entirely change their way of life, leaving a congregation, finding other means to make a living, and even facing divorce clerical marriage is allowed within protestant denominations. They also faced cognitive dissonance when preaching something they no longer believed. For some, this experience was difficult and traumatic. However, others saw this as a positive experience that led to knowing themselves better. Emerging from both CP testimonies and interviews were feelings of low self-esteem and unhappiness associated with a time of crisis in religiosity.
In this case, depression was not seen as a cause nor consequence of unbelief, but rather as a state that once resolved, had a direct impact on the belief system of the individual. This is best exemplified by Participant B when she explained:. In some cases, deconversion was intertwined with a process of facing and overcoming fears, guilt, internal conflicts, depression or family issues. For instance, thinking about how she lost her belief, Participant E explained:.
Reading was a recurring code throughout the data, as many interview participants and ex-clergy members discussed the profound effect of reading books on their process of deconversion. Reading about alternative ideas on the Internet and widening their social circle by meeting new people were both cited as contributing factors to the realization that having doubts was more common than they thought, that they were not alone, and that nothing bad would befall them should they abandon their faith. Here, the close context is defined as the influence of family — and the religious socialization and expectations of conformity that can come from it — as well as the local community, which can reinforce or relax religious practice.
Within the wider context several factors can be found: links between national identity and religion, educational settings e. Catholic or non-denominational schools , pressure to conform, the relationship between gender and atheism, and the minority status that atheists still have in many places.
Some of these contextual influences were discussed by Participant A:. Importantly, the process of deconversion usually stretched over long periods of time, from several months to many years. This gradual change can clearly be seen in this extract from CP testimonies:. So my journey from a committed Baptist with Sunday School attendance pins down to my navel to atheism was a slow but progressive process. Nothing sudden. Just one hint after another that a god as understood in theistic religions made no more sense to me.
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Lastly, in most cases, individuals articulated their stories of deconversion around personal episodes that were specific and loaded with meaning, making their journeys akin to others, but at the same time particularly unique. The proposed model of deconversion presented in this study is compatible with previous findings in the research on deconversion and to broader concepts in psychology.
Caplovitz and Sherrow had also counted the influence of intellectualism among their causes of abandoning religion. Not surprisingly, the inability to take faith as an answer to quench growing doubts was another similarity.
Our results showed that a commitment to truth was generally underpinned by an inescapable need to make sense of both the world and personal experiences, while requiring evidence-based rather than faith-based answers. Moreover, instead of a passion to seek the truth, the religious training and upbringing of CP members and interview participants brought, at times, fear, guilt or confusion, mirroring previous findings e. Dennett and LaScola ; Zuckerman In criticism and discontent, the ethical and moral issues that emerged as factors weakening religious belief and detaching individuals from institutionalized religion also echoed some of the concerns expressed by atheists in previous studies Altemeyer and Hunsberger ; Barbour ; Hunsberger and Altemeyer ; Vetter and Green ; Zuckerman Instead, and more consistent with social identity theory Tajfel and Turner , religious beliefs were no longer internalized as part of the self-concept and the social identity that religious membership afforded became inadequate and negative, driving individuals to disaffiliate from the religious community.
In regards to the core category of personal development, it seems plausible to draw some connections with self-actualization if we consider how some participants had to overcome internal conflict and fear to achieve higher levels of well-being. Schnell and Keenan argue that for highly committed atheists, self-actualizing behaviors are part of the sources used to find life meaning. From a cognitive standpoint, dual process theories of cognitive styles have been proposed to explain how people differ in their propensity to have religious and supernatural beliefs.
Although dual process theories have been described in different ways, they all propose two different kinds of processing that people engage in. System one or heuristic is usually characterized as fast, unconscious, effortless, intuitive, and automatic, whereas system two or analytic is slow, conscious, reflective, effortful, and deliberate Evans A substantial body of research indicates that those individuals with a tendency for an analytical cognitive style are less likely to hold religious beliefs Aarnio and Lindeman ; Aarnio and Lindeman ; Lindeman and Aarnio ; Lindeman and Aarnio ; Gervais and Norenzayan ; Shenhav et al.
Moreover, research shows that the negative relationship between a proclivity for analytic reasoning and religiosity holds even after controlling for cognitive ability, personality factors, and demographics Shenhav et al. Conversely, relying on an intuitive and heuristic cognitive style more likely leads individuals to be religious and to believe with more confidence Lindeman and Aarnio ; Aarnio and Lindeman ; Shenhav et al. One of the cognitive mechanisms by which analytical thinking weakens religiosity is conflict detection Pennycook et al.
Many religious beliefs are counterintuitive and violate the expectations set by our experience of the natural world and an analytical style would detect inconsistencies and conflicting information, thus undermining belief.
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As has been stated in the current study and in previous research Altemeyer and Hunsberger ; Brewster ; Hunsberger and Altemeyer , detecting and questioning inconsistencies, not only in religious doctrine but also in religious behavior is a common occurrence during the deconversion process.
Other cognitive mechanisms characteristic of analytic cognitive style, as shown by experiments involving tasks in deductive reasoning, are a better predisposition to avoid belief bias, and a tendency to spend more time in problem solving Pennycook et al. An inclination towards an analytical style among deconverts is the cognitive counterpart of the intellectual orientation observed by Altemeyer and Hunsberger , and is represented within the core category of reason and enquiry of the present theoretical model. At this point some clarifications are in order. For instance, as expressed in the core category of personal development, CP members had to face greater challenges finding new occupations.
However, all the elements of the theoretical model the core categories, the contexts, and the gradual character of change were present, at a greater or lesser extent, in the experiences of CP members and interview participants alike.
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Second, it is important to note that the process of deconversion does not necessarily exclude an agnostic outcome. Moreover, it is entirely possible to experience a similar process and still remain religious. Although the implications of the findings potentially relate to factors that affect more people, both individually and in society at large e.