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The Deconversion Profile

Can we identify who is likely to deconvert before it happens? 

Kneeling Man

Profiling, the practice of analyzing a person's characteristics in order to make a prediction about them, can be immensely helpful; but also very dangerous. On the one hand, criminal profilers can be very helpful in identifying a particular type of individual the police should be looking for based on their analysis of the evidence. On the other hand, profiling can lead to inaccurate and harmful generalizations about entire people groups, as in racial profiling.


When I speak about a deconversion profile I am referring to a set of traits that tend to characterize those who have left the faith. In doing so there s a danger in implying that all those who are characterized by these traits will inevitably deconvert. That is simply not true. It's impossible to predict with accuracy who will leave the Faith.  After all is said and done, deconversion is ultimately an inscrutable process. I'm convinced that even deconverts themselves aren't fully aware of why they left the faith. How much less so are those of us who observe it from the outside? In saying that I'm not criticizing deconverts. I believe the same lack of awareness is true of people who convert to Christianity. Part of what it means to be human is having factors that operate outside of our conscious awareness - specifically our psychological traits and our personal values - that impact why we believe the claims we do. In recent years numerous studies have been conducted on how these psychological and value factors impact religiosity and deconversion. Together they help construct a deconversion profile; the traits that most often are true of those who leave their religious faith. Of the many fascinating findings they have uncovered, three are relevant to the deconversion profile.


First, it's clear that there are both psychological traits and personal value differences between religious and nonreligious individuals.1 Second, those differences also are reflected by those who remain believers and those who deconvert.2 Third, those traits and values often serve as predictors of who will eventually leave the faith.3


Now, it needs to be underscored that these traits and values are only statistical predictors. Meaning, those who have deconverted tend to score higher on certain traits and values and low on other traits and values. There is a discernible difference between the profile of a deconvert and that of a faithful follower. However, this does not mean that an individual who fits the deconversion profile is doomed to leave the faith. There is much more going on in the hearts and minds of individuals that cannot be measured, quantified, and analyzed that plays a role in faith formation. Not the least of which is the work of the Holy Spirit. 


Having said that, here are the traits that make up the deconversion profile. 




The Deconversion Profile


An individual who possesses the psychological traits of being:

  • Above Average Intelligence

  • More analytic than intuitive

  • Open to Experience: 

  • Low Tolerance for Authoritarian Leadership

  • High Tolerance for Ambiguity

An Individual who highly values:

  • Self Determination

  • Pleasure

  • Change, varied life

  • Power / Prestige

An Individual who minimally values:

  • Benevolence

  • Tradition
  • Conformity

An Individual who has:

  • Some college experience.




But what exactly, do those terms mean? 

Psychological Traits


  • Above average in intelligence: I think this is self-explanatory.

  • More analytic than intuitive: An analytic individual values an orderly approach to decision-making. Prioritizes facts, data, and deliberation in problem-solving. An intuitive individual emphasizes intuition, the ability to immediately comprehend a matter. They are less inclined to see problems as black or white. Here's an example of how an analytic and an intuitive would answer the question, What explains the complexity, beauty, and unlikely existence of the apparent fine-tuning of the universe? An analytic would methodically analyze all of the different options, consider the evidence for each, and then draw a conclusion. Whereas the intuitive will make a much quicker decision based on what seems clearly obvious to him. We all engage in both kinds of reasoning. One is not necessarily better than the other. For instance, we rely on our intuitive reasoning hundreds of times a day, from interpreting people's faces to determining when the pasta is finished cooking. We engage in analytic reasoning when the matter at hand is more complex. Such as whether to rent or buy a house.  

  • Open to Experience: Those characterized as open to experience are typically intellectually curious, open-minded, and seek novel experiences. Practically speaking such individuals are eager to learn new things, hear alternative perspectives and launch out on new adventures. If they're an atheist but a New Age speaker is giving a presentation down at the student union, they'll go and listen. If they're politically conservative but their friend wants them to read a particular book that challenges a particular position they hold, they will likely read it. If they're invited to try new foods, go sky diving, or just about any novel experiences, they respond with, "Let's go!" Those who are less inclined to be open to experiences appreciate routines, schedules, and traditions. They are less likely to listen to the New Age speaker, read the book, or try new food. 

  • Low Tolerance for Authoritarian Leadership: A distaste for being told what to do by others. As it relates to deconversion, this trait is especially relevant to religious traditions and homes that are inclined toward fundamentalism.  

  • High Tolerance for Ambiguity: The ability to live in the grey. Being comfortable with uncertainty and unpredictability. Such individuals may find it difficult to affirm the either-or thinking of their religious tradition. For example, claims such as, "Christianity is right and all other religions are wrong" and "The Bible clearly says..." are difficult to accept for those who see the issues as more complex than their family or church. 

Personal Values

  • Conformity: the habit of refraining from committing actions or acting on impulses likely to upset others and that violate social norms.

  • Tradition: respect, commitment, and acceptance of customs and ideas that one’s culture or religion imposes on individuals.

  • Benevolence: concern for the welfare of others.

  • Self-direction: independent thought and action.

  • Stimulation: excitement, novelty, and challenge in life.

  • Hedonism: pleasure and sensuous gratification for oneself.

  • Power: achieving social status, prestige, and control over people and things.

Some College


There are at least three reasons why college can negatively affect faith. First, it's likely the initial time young people get exposed to ideas that challenge their beliefs. Encountering academic theories that are at odds with the tenets of their faith from respected and learned professors can be very powerful. Likewise, college is a time when young people are not only exposed to new ideas but new people. Depending on how negatively their faith tradition viewed those of other faith traditions can cause a young adult to deeply question their beliefs when they meet other students from different religions who are devout, kind, and moral. Such encounters inevitably will cause them to wonder if these devout, kind, and moral people really are deserving of eternal punishment in Hell. Second, the college years coincide with an increasing level of self-reflection, critical thinking, and independence. Adolescence gives way to young adulthood and with it the urge to be one's own person. Naturally, since religious faith is so central to one's identity, it will be questioned.  Third, students often have to leave their families and religious communities to attend college. Being away from those influences can provide a sense of freedom, never before experienced, to question what they really believe. 

No one fits the Deconversion Profile perfectly. But the closer an individual aligns with it the more likely it is - humanly speaking - that they will deconvert. 

1. Hui, H. et. al (2017). In Search of the Psychological Antecedents and Consequences of Christian Conversion: A Three-Year Prospective Study. (Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol. 9, No. 2, 220–230

2. Hui, H. et. al (2018). Psychological Changes During Faith Exit: A Three-Year Prospective Study. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol. 10, No. 2, 103–118

3. Hui, H. et. al (2015). Psychological Predictors of Chinese Christians’ Church Attendance and Religious Steadfastness: A Three-Wave Prospective Study. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol. 7, No. 3, 250 –264

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