Relatively little thought is given to the notion of deconversion. I first came across the idea, indeed developed the idea in my head, having attended some Sea of Faith conferences and events. The idea has resurfaced after the wide variety of responses to the question of What is the Gospel that has been running from and around some blogs.
How does deconversion happen? It can happen gradually, or in a flash, or it happens in a flash as an endpoint to what has been going on gradually.
It happens in theological colleges. I've seen it. Students go in full of the joys of evangelical spring, only to find that their assumptions get torn apart by the tutors. A Baptist ordinand said to me, in Luther King House, "I thought the enemy was outside but they are in here." He meant the staff.
It happened in my case before the concept in that having come into Christianity via John A. T. Robinson and Paul Tillich I realised that Paul Tillich and all that existential language was a closed system that paralleled the Christian language. It was for people already 'in' who wanted to communicate to the existential and secular world. This was just systematic theology and, I've subsequently learnt, not quite of the position even of John Robinson, who was anti the system of Thomas Aquinas and supposed power - that is in a system - in favour of a closer God of a more open biblical narrative.
Now it could be argued that I was never really 'in', but nevertheless there was a moment when my 'translating the liturgy' to existentialism (Ultimate Goodness, Being, New Being) failed and I realised there was nothing in it equating to my thought-forms. At this time I was in the process of considering becoming a Anglican ordinand. I sort of carried on but then rode both Unitarian and Anglican horses at the same time until making a decision for the Unitarian.
Fifteen plus years on I tried postmodern strategies for diving into Anglican liturgical life, none of which were sustainable. I decided during my decline within the last Anglican encounter that it would be the last encounter, whether or not I continue with the Unitarians.
I have developed sensors which detect all the strategies of preaching that involve levels of doublespeak, of people who use Christian language to appear more orthodox than they are. I can also detect this in written material. I don't wish to be arrogant, but I know the weak points and if you try any such argument on with me I'll be in by the nearest entry point.
This is nothing to do with the 'New Atheism' or any of that; rather, it is to do with people who can engage with sophisticated theology.
A few Facebook friends are going through an ordinand process where they are being sold all kinds of postliberal and postmodern theology, all of which when alone can fall apart. Some of the levels of theological excitement remind me of cartoon characters who have run off the top of a cliff and are running furiously. They stay up for a few moments and then plunge. Many seem to me to be there during the staying up moments.
Not all deconversions are so thoroughgoing, and what saves many an ordinand is their own background. It matters if they went through Sunday School and have always had that Christian upbringing. Their brain is wired up to help. It can also matter if they had a thoroughgoing conversion that created an emotional anchor and dependency. That latter, however, might not be enough.
It also matters, it really does, if you were brought up agnostic and your basic thought patterns are of the sociology of knowledge that most of us assume today. This does not mean sophisticated ideological discourse, but what constitutes those basic assumptions in every day life. The every day involves a basic scientific outlook and the notion that technology solves problems, and that the world is ours to improve or ruin. For example, we don't ask what God is going to do regarding the seasons of the weather, but look at the weather forecaster and the charts.
The problem with Christianity is that it involves the supernatural and is science-like and history-like, and in terms of its figure of salvation, biography-like. Its science-like aspect involves virgin births and dead bodies (or at least one) coming back to life in transformed bodies. Some of it has pure and perpetual virginity for the salvation figure's mum. In being history-like, it frequently forgets that absolutely all of its key texts are secondary in terms of historical material: they are primary only in the sense that they were originally produced by the early Church full of early Church beliefs. To make them historical, as if primary, a fine sifting is needed and those like the Jesus Seminar can produce results that look half-dead and without motivation. I can say with the rest of them that the early Christian community escalated Jesus's titles. So what? They believed in all sorts of things. Thus with the history the biography is also lost: much of the Easter passion narratives simply don't stand up, for example, as the contained internal reasoning for 'what happens next' seems to fail. The actuality is that very little is known about Jesus; for example, he must have had some mission but, say, how long did it last? Was it three years, or more likely about a year? Here is a question: why is a year or so more likely?
The point is that anyone who has done the work knows all this, but of course their 'faith' decides that some things happened or have a kind of psychology of happening in a mythical-driving sense. Faith, however, makes not one jot of difference as regards what did or didn't happen. Ah, but, and sure, a historian would say it is not about what happens, but about the documents. Indeed so - the secondary communities' documents. But then so much Christianity becomes about the documents and the texts themselves. But when these texts themselves clash with the given texts of contemporary sociology of knowledge, there is the bizarre claim in a conserving postliberalism that the texts are 'performative' and have 'community-identity'. This is a cop-out! It is the equivalent of not having your cake and eating it.
The fact is that current sociology of knowledge involves naturalism and research. You use your textworld and test things, and they return results either quantitative-regular or qualitative-valid. Christianity does not do this; faith cannot - except to tell you what believers think.
Ask why is it that theology is forever raiding history, social science, science and philosophy for its content, and yet these other disciplines hardly ever bother to consult theology?
Now it doesn't matter if you are clerical or if you are lay: deconversion can happen to anyone.
You can still do sermons and still talk convincingly. You can put out theological options with a 'What do you think?' afterwards. The authors of the choices of options thus avoid what they think. You can do a Bible study, all internal and it sounds convincing - but it is of the book and not you. You can do a discussion of comparing options. You can live in some historical period, and dialogue as if from there, until you throw the light switch and the bulb comes on and your talk becomes everyday again. You can try to do a Tillich-like substitution of language, but this usually ends up in closed-off difficulties.
Now Catholics and Anglo-Catholics are slightly better protected in this matter than liberal Protestants. The Catholic can dress up, ritualise and talk about things like Benedictine spirituality and discipline. I like to use the question 'Why?' for such people. 'Why are you doing this?'
The liberal Protestant is much more naked. Affirming Liberalism is more on the edge, and whereas Affirming Catholicism affirms Catholicism in parts, Affirming Liberalism usually affirms some residual doctrines not liberalism.
Using the current sociology of knowledge is not the end of religion. It is secularisation but not necessarily secularism. You can still look at the wonder of science and the awe of the arts and ask if these signals of transcendence add up. Indeed you might remain convinced still that there is still a 'love' at the heart of the natural cosmos that can be called God (I'm not): you can still profess pantheism or panentheism (that God is a little more distinctive in its purposefulness than the sum of deifying the natural world).
You can still speak of the human spirit, of your behaviour and outlook, and what can be changed. You can still draw on figures inspired by religious texts. Gandhi is an excellent example. We can still read the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible and so on, but at a different standpoint - with much to be rejected. There are no unique saviours, no interventionist Gods, and no watertight tradition. There is a way to symbolise, using social anthropology and exchange-gift theory. A lot is possible, but it is not Christianity as a system. People get deconverted from Christianity.