Conversion or Deconversion, What's the Difference?

“Why do you use the term “deconversion”? Don’t you think you would have better luck getting people to participate in your study if you didn’t use such a negative term?”

The above comment came from a facebook conversation I had with a university student. She was responding to a request I posted on her atheist club’s facebook page seeking participants for my research. “Why don’t you just call it conversion, it would be less insulting?’ So why don’t I use the term conversion instead of deconversion to describe the process of losing one’s faith? Does it indicate a bias because the word “deconversion” carries with it a negative connotation?

Interestingly, the term “deconversion” is one that atheists use to describe themselves. It is as much atheist scholars who have chosen the term “deconversion” to describe the process of losing their faith, as scholars who are religious. For example, Seth Andrews, a former Christian broadcaster entitled his biography Deconverted: A Journey From Religion to Reason. But what about the negative connotation? Wouldn’t it be better off to use the term “conversion” to describe the journey to atheism? After all, that is what we call it when someone adopts a new religious affiliation. The short answer is no. Deconversion is a distinct process from conversion.

Lori Fazzino, a deconvert herself, persuasively argued that deconversion from a religious faith to atheism often lacks many of the typical characteristics of conversions that occur as one migrates between religions. Fazzino pointed out that, in the case of conversion experiences from no faith to faith or between religious faiths, testimonies have an emphasis on turning to something. The turn is a positive one where the new “true” faith replaces the old and false one. Such testimonies also represent the first stage in a commitment to the new faith, which, it is assumed, will be followed by a natural progression in the faith. Furthermore, in such cases the convert has a known destination, which includes a theology, a set of specific doctrinal beliefs, and, more than likely, a community of practice to belong to, like a church community. However, this is not the case with deconversion from faith to nonbelief. Testimonies that emphasize turning from faith are characterized such by loss. They are often the culmination of a spiritual struggle that led to an unknown destination which did not offer the deconvert a secure and stable environment in which to establish an identity. Atheism, or any other form of non-belief, does not provide the deconvert with an identifiable set of beliefs to adopt or a community to be a member of in the same way as converting to a new faith does.

Moreover, for converts to a faith, the emotional response is often accompanied by positive experiences such as a sense of reliance on a higher power, a sense of assurance, and a feeling of ecstasy. For the deconvert, the emotional response is marked by grief and guilt along with rejection and alienation. In general, the way converts talk about their conversions are often focused on an emphasis on the new self, whereas for deconversion, they center on the loss of the old self. Finally, personal transformations among religious converts result in the end of doubting and produce liberation, religious conformity, and the suspension of analytic reasoning. For the deconvert from faith, the personal transformation produces eventual relief, an ongoing search for truth, liberation, religious resistance, and a stigmatized status.

The term “deconversion” is important because it labels a process that is distinct from conversion. It is the term most often chosen by former Christians, like Seth Andrews, to describe their journey out of Christianity and into atheism. It is also a term that is appearing more often in our cultural lexicon as more believers abandon their faith and adopt a position of unbelief. That being the case it is important for Christians to understand what deconversion is in order to play a meaningful role in such an important conversation.