Deconverting – Actual Research

Back in graduate school I was searching for an original research topic that I would be able to summon enough energy towards to complete my Masters thesis.  I was studying a little-known field called Student Affairs in Higher Education, which basically prepares professionals to manage Universities and colleges with the ideal of preparing students for lifetime leadership, academic success, etc. A large part of my studies was on identity development across many areas – we studied racial identity development, faith development, cognitive development, moral development and everything in between.

As I was studying in a fairly conservative town in the Rocky Mountain West, I was becoming increasingly more aware of my own identity as an Atheist. The more removed from non-believers that I became, and the more entrenched with some very religious colleagues and students I became, the more I clung to my still-fresh Atheist beliefs.  I found myself becoming annoyingly “visible” in order to stake claim to this aspect of my identity. I developed a certain hyperawareness about what was “safe”, inclusive and/or not welcoming. Not dissimilar from what other minorities report experiencing in a White majority culture.

I do not equate the experience of deconverting with that of being a racial minority, but I did find that for better or worse the experience did closely resemble that of LGBT people who are beginning to develop this element of their identity.  I think the primary commonalities were being invisible minorities, being underrepresented and the centrality of Atheism to the identity of someone who has truly deconverted.  

I found people who deconverted to Atheism had a very different relationship with their own Atheism. For those who had deconverted, non-belief was prominent and central to their own identity. It was much more personally salient to them than for those who never had a belief in god or never really embraced Christianity (I only studied former Christians).

I had lukewarm reactions from advisors, difficulty sharing my research with strangers and a hard time just finding background literature on the topic.  There were no positive politics in making special efforts to support those deconverting. Many considered it a marginal issue or somehow against their religion to support students going through such a crisis of identity or belief. Adding to the invisibilty of my population was the fact that most people who are deconverting do so quietly, like lambs,  although they may come out like lions later.

Those subjects who I found to help with my study, however, were very excited to be given a voice. I will never forget the emotion, stories and openness that my study participants contributed. I was able to collect a great richness of material for my study and found striking commonalities within the experience of deconversion. My study was qualitative, which was much more time intensive, but gave me a richness of material that I would now like to re-present – slowly as there is so much info to share. 

In the study I looked at a number of elements, including 1) Thoughts about the process and overall logical framework  2) Feelings about Self  and 3) Roles of Significant Others and Society and 4) Experienced Challenges and Supports. 

In the coming posts I hope to expand on my findings and point out some of the highlights. Feel free to contact me if you have thoughts or areas you want me to expand upon.


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